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Medical diplomacy is a form of diplomatic relations which is intended to sponsor positive relations between nations while also providing needed health services. Cuba is particularly well known for its medical diplomacy missions, which have been carried out since 1960. It is believed that medical diplomacy could help to ease tensions between nations, while giving a positive image for the nation sending doctors and other needed personnel. It is part of a larger framework of foreign relations which is sometimes called compassionate diplomacy.
Many countries around the world struggle to provide needed health services to their citizens, especially after natural disasters and emergencies. In some cases, a country's health care budget is so depleted that it can barely afford to maintain minimal clinics, and it may not be able to provide basic necessary medication and facilities to patients. Many organizations around the world such as the International Red Cross/Red Crescent and Doctors Without Borders travel or donate to these countries to improve medical conditions.
In the case of medical diplomacy, a nation rather than an organization sends doctors, equipment, supplies, and other personnel to another nation in need. In some cases, the compassionate mission may be brief, as might be the case when a country sends doctors to the site of an earthquake. In other instances, medical diplomacy is a long term effort which is designed to have a lasting impact on the host nation of the mission. In this case, the team may include people to train new medical professionals, build medical facilities, and educate the general populace of the host nation about health issues.
In many cases, doctors and staff volunteer for medical diplomacy missions. The self-sacrificing attitudes of these individuals can send a powerful message to the host nation. When a country has a reputation for riding roughshod in its foreign relations doings, the individual actions of citizens reaching out to people in need can greatly help to change that image. Staff on a medical diplomacy mission may endure very difficult conditions, but they persevere because they are committed to good health for all citizens, and to better global relations.
The establishment of medical training facilities is a big part of medical diplomacy, as is provision of needed surgery, medications, and vaccines. In addition, many countries get involved with assisting other nations by setting up preventative healthcare programs and education. Successful medical diplomacy requires a large and well coordinated team, along with excellent communication between the host nation and the nation sending out the diplomatic mission. Ultimately, it is intended to win hearts and minds through compassion and care, rather than brute force such as war or complex foreign aid terms.
For a detailed discussion of medical diplomacy, see Julie M. Feinsilver, Healing the Masses: Cuban Health Politics at Home and Abroad, University of California Press, 1993, Chapter 5 on Medical Diplomacy; and Julie M. Feinsilver, "Cuban Medical Diplomacy: When the Left Has Got it Right"