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Why Medical Students Are Pursuing Global Health Experiences—Commentary

04/04/2018 Robert S. Porter, MD, Editor-in-Chief, The Merck Manuals

As the world seems to get a little smaller every day, the medical community’s focus on global health is steadily increasing. Nowhere is that increased interest more apparent than in today’s students pursuing a career in medicine.

The Merck Manuals team surveyed 130 medical and pre-med students at the recent American Medical Student Association (AMSA) Annual Convention. Respondents included medical and pre-medical students representing domestic and international universities and programs. A vast majority of students—92%—said they plan to get involved in global health during their medical career. It’s clear the next generation of physicians is putting an increased emphasis on healthy communities around the world. It’s our job as an industry to make sure those engaged in global health undertakings have the support they need to be successful.

The transformational power of travel

For the survey, our team defined global health as study, research and practice focused on improving health and achieving equity in health for all people worldwide. That emphasis on equity in health was evident in our survey results. Nearly six in 10 respondents interested in pursuing global health said their top motivation was “providing health care where it’s needed the most.” Students identified other leading motivations for their plans to get involved in global health, including studying infectious diseases and conditions (14%) and having cross-cultural experiences (10%). For many students, hands-on experiences have proven to be transformational.

“My experiences providing care at a children’s hospital in Senegal, West Africa, changed my entire perspective about medicine and why I wanted to pursue a career as a doctor. They were working with such limited resources, yet this great team of doctors could do so much for the children there,” said Naheed, a student from St. Christopher’s College of Medicine. “In the U.S., we take our vaccinations and medicines for granted, which is why it’s very important to be exposed to global health issues.”

Many of the students we surveyed are planning to travel in pursuit of similar experiences. When students interested in global health were asked how they plan to get involved, many respondents indicated short-term service trips to underdeveloped areas (64%) and long-term work in underdeveloped areas (33%). Four in 10 students say they have already traveled abroad to help underserved communities.

Experiences abroad can shape a physician’s career and considerably expand their skillsets. In fact, in surveys of global health training, international rotations have been shown to broaden a resident's medical knowledge, reinforce physical examination skills, and encourage practicing medicine among underserved and multicultural populations.

Global health at home

Our survey aligns with other research showing that more students are seeking global health opportunities, increasingly at the undergraduate level. In addition to traveling to work in underserved communities, students we surveyed were taking specific steps at home to enhance their global health education:

  • I have volunteered in underserved communities at home (61%)
  • I have learned (or am learning) a new language (42%)
  • I have participated in relevant classes, research, or student groups (33%)
  • I have attended conferences or workshops focused on global health (29%)
  • I have researched opportunities to participate in global health care (18%)

Ultimately, all of this education can create more well-rounded physicians with improved skills and a better capacity for understanding the needs of the patients they’re treating.

“In May, I’ll be traveling with a group of students to Peru for six weeks to support doctors and medical staff in local clinics,” Lauren, a student from Brigham Young University, told us. “But my ultimate goal is to have a long-term impact on these communities; not just treating conditions but also helping people change their lifestyles so disease can be prevented in future generations. It’s about teaching a community about healthy practices so they can support each other once we leave.”

Knowledge is essential

The field of global health comes with unique challenges, including limited infrastructure and internet access, language barriers and cultural issues. As physicians of any age work to expand their work in global health, they need access to the right resources and support. That means equipping them with the best medical information.

We designed the Merck Manuals mobile apps with these challenges in mind. Disease, symptom, and treatment information in the Consumer and Professional apps are available for download in five languages, and once on a device, the information can be accessed without an internet connection. Medical professionals anywhere in the world can quickly access trusted, up-to-date medical information. Consumers have a handy, easy-to-use version written in language they can understand.

As our profession takes an increased interest in serving developing communities at home and abroad, comprehensive access to accurate, reliable medical information will remain as important as ever.