Medical Student Perspectives: Global Health Opportunities in Internal Medicine: A Question-and-Answer Resource about Global Health for Medical Students, Residents, and Beyond
I'm interested in global health as a career. How can I prepare for this?
The Global Health Education Consortium is an international organization dedicated to promoting education and careers in global health. Many medical schools participate, and if yours does, students can register for a free individual account. Membership in the GHEC will place you on their international listserve, where other GHEC members regularly post announcements about job, residency, and student education opportunities from all over the world.
For those considering long-term international work, the GHEC has compiled plenty of resources to help figure out what's right for you. Click the Resources tab to find articles with advice for students on starting international research projects, how to behave on overseas rotations, what to expect out of your travel experience, and much more. The online teaching modules about working and visiting in low-resource countries are also helpful, specifically modules 4, 5, 7, 93, and 108.
Can I get any global health experience during residency?
Absolutely! Several residency programs in internal medicine as well as other specialties have created global health tracks. Generally, prospective students must first be admitted to the residency program offering a global health track and then apply for the track itself at a later point during the first year of training.
Global health tracks vary as much as the residency programs that offer them. However, core components include special lectures and small group discussions, field experience, and a thesis/capstone project. Many programs also include a component of service to the less fortunate in the community around the home hospital, recognizing that disparities in healthcare do not only exist internationally. Because of the need to balance international experience with education at the home hospital, overseas time is limited to three months per internal medicine residency (this is an ACGME regulation). Some schools extend residency by one year to allow for additional field time or for students to earn an MPH.
For more specifics about residency programs with global health foci, look at the Global Health Education Consortium's Residency Guidebook. Pages 36-78 offer detailed information on selected residency programs. Plans are in the works to profile additional programs; stay tuned for further developments!
What kind of students are the global health residency programs looking for?
Admissions directors are looking for students with a strong passion for global health and serving underserved communities, particularly those who wish to incorporate this passion into their careers. Previous experience working with the underserved domestically or internationally is preferred but not required. A working knowledge of major global health issues would also be a benefit. However, if you've never left the country but want to give global health a try, there are plenty of programs which offer international rotations to all residents.
How can I get international experience as a medical student?
There are numerous organizations that are willing to take medical students for clinical experience. Programs are offered for both preclinical and clinical students and can last from one week to two years. Most require you to pay your own expenses and sometimes a program fee (the combination can turn out to be several thousand dollars). In return, the host organization will arrange your food, lodging, clinical rotations, and weekend trips to explore your surroundings.
The most exhaustive list of international opportunities for medical students can be found here: http://www.imva.org/Pages/orgdb/wblstfrm.htm. The website is unabashedly outdated, but most of the listed organizations still exist. Once you find a promising program, you can Google the name to reach its current website. A more recently updated, albeit less extensive, website is maintained by the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine: http://library.umassmed.edu/ihoc/index.cfm.
Another option for a global health rotation is to connect with physicians at your medical school who are active internationally. Although hard to reach because they are often out of the country, working with someone from your school will eliminate the program costs of going through an established volunteer organization.
My biggest piece of advice for arranging an international rotation: start early. Established volunteer organizations will have application deadlines, professors at your school will not e-mail you back, and you will have exams. It might take months for you to weave your way through numerous connections and web searches to find the rotation of your dreams. However, once you finally arrive, the experience is like none other.
Good luck and safe travels!
Council of Student Members, Midwestern Region Representative
Washington University School of Medicine, 2012
Special thanks to Dr. Melvin Blanchard and Dr. Laila Saied for contributing to this article.