The KwaZulu-Natal health department has reached an agreement with Cuba to allow students from SA to study medicine while paying their own tuition fees, health MEC Dr Siboniseni Dhlomo said yesterday.

Cuba's healthcare sector has been recognised as an example for poorer countries. Its modest infrastructure investment coupled with a strong public health strategy have combined to produce a health status comparable with that of industrialised countries.

"There will be a shortage of doctors in SA over the next 15 years unless we find something else to do (to train more)," Dr Dhlomo said at the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Hospital in Phoenix, Durban.

Over the past 15 years the government has annually sponsored the full costs of about 10 medical students from each province to study in Cuba. The doctor to patient ratio in Cuba is 1:450, while in SA, where many rural clinics have never seen a doctor, the ratio is 1:10000.

The combined intake of the eight medical schools in SA was 2000, but many students with good potential were left frustrated every year as there was no alternative study discipline geared towards becoming a doctor, Dr Dhlomo said. The government would assist those wishing to study medicine in Cuba by paying their airfare, among other things.

Dr Vusumzi Mehlo, an intern at Mahatma Gandhi, said his six years of study in Cuba had prepared him well to become a doctor, even though he had to learn Spanish.

Cuban doctors concentrated on primary healthcare, he said. The level of healthcare was such that doctors seldom treated patients with HIV/AIDS or tuberculosis, there was no malnutrition and "no crime". They dealt more with problems such as hypertension and cardiac diseases, he said.