If you ask medical professionals why they chose their career path, you’ll get repeated answers, most including something along the lines of “I’m passionate about helping people”. Yet, job satisfaction in the Western medical industry is decreasing, perhaps due to the long hours, predictable routines, or the abundance of technology that can take away from the personal professional-to-patient connection.

If you’re in the medical field, and find yourself seeking a new challenge or experience where you can use your skills, it’s probably time to consider an international medical program.

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Benefits of an International Program

Medical professionals who get involved with an international medical program get a sense of adventure, while positively impacting local communities in disadvantaged areas. Resources are typically scarce, forcing you out of your comfort zone and challenging you to use your medical knowledge to serve patients efficiently. Thorough clinical examinations are vital to proper diagnosis, as a different way of living could have exposed them to risks you’d otherwise bypass back home. And getting thorough accounts of a patient’s medical history is critical to determining treatment–thorough accounts that will likely have to be conducted in a foreign language.

Medical volunteers are likely to develop enhanced medical judgement, decision making, verbal and non-verbal communication skills, and personal knowledge in an area outside of their specialty.

Perhaps even more important is the exposure and experience working in global health. With the accessibility of international travel, diseases commonly found in one region can now easily be transferred to a completely different part of the world. A medical program abroad can potentially provide hands on experience and training managing these conditions, and learning about alternative treatment approaches.

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Students enrolled in a medical program can especially benefit through a medical volunteer project. Clinics and hospitals overseas that need volunteers are typically short staffed. This puts students in a position to get hands-on experience to a much further extent than they would get back home. The experience will also expose you to the different ways care is provided in different countries before becoming accustomed to the standard ways of the west.

In addition to volunteering, medical students can also benefit from a medical internship abroad! Internships not only provide an opportunity to build experience, but can help you to satisfy an internship or “on the field” requirement, helping you to advance your studies and check off another box towards graduation.

Ethics

A medical program abroad doesn’t come without ethical responsibility. It is important to know the proper ways to interact with the people and communities being served. Volunteering is a special opportunity which provides such an important service, but it must be done in a way that respects local culture, customs, and institutions. This is why it is advantageous to have an in-country team.

Support within the country can help to provide reassurance on how to treat patients, what to expect, things and places to avoid, and the traditional customs of the country.

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It’s also beneficial to be able to get full transparency of the monetary details of the program. Volunteering or interning abroad doesn’t come without a ticket price–pricing usually includes administrative fees, housing and meals, and direct project donations (supplies, provisions, and sometimes monetary donations). It is important to find a program willing to share information on how your pay is being handled to ensure sustainability and real community development.

Enrolling with a responsible program will also ensure that you are placed in a project that will utilize your medical knowledge and experience responsibly, without putting the patient’s safety at risk. So, don’t expect advanced surgery practice for those of you without a license!

Challenges

Like all experiences that push you outside of your comfort zone, volunteering and interning abroad doesn’t come without its challenges. One of the most obvious challenges is the potential for miscommunication and communication barriers. If you are spending time in a country where you know little of the local language, it’s helpful to tack on a language course to your program.

Language immersion is a surefire way to rapidly advance your language skills, which is so important to being able to service patients. In the U.S, Spanish is the second most spoken language, so volunteering or interning in Latin America will surely make you a top candidate for various medical opportunities.

Another challenge might be the expectations one may have of an international medical program. Medical institutions abroad comply by a different set of standards and regulations than you might be used to. Therefore, regardless of the extent of your experience, you may or may not be able to get involved in the kinds of medical services you’re expecting. One student might be afforded the opportunity to gain extensive experience in a short time, while a professional might have to accept that they are not the head honcho anymore.

It is also important to understand the scarcity of resources an institution might be able to afford. Therefore, you may have to accept that not all patients will be able to be served, and having to turn away patients can be challenging for any medical professional. However, any and all assistance you do provide will be extremely helpful, though you will be unable to solve all of the healthcare systems problems. Due to the inadequate resources, interns and volunteers should not expect to be paid for their work.

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The benefits of an international medical program far outweigh the challenges. Medical students and professionals will certainly find their passions once again for helping patients, and even provide knowledge to the medical doctors and staff. Being exposed to an underdeveloped healthcare system will build the skills you need to thrive in an environment where medical resources are limited, allowing you to develop your problem solving, decision making, and communication skills, and making you the ideal medical professional in any medical setting.