A global experience helps future health professionals prepare for the vast array of challenges they will face in their career, and many health professions have identified global health competencies they expect in practitioners. Participating in a global experience can be a step in developing those competencies.
Dr. Stephen Swanson, a pediatric infectious disease specialist working in Tanzania who has 20 years' experience working abroad has this advice: "I would strongly encourage you to look for an international experience that is focused not on doing, service, or volunteerism, but on learning and observation.Go somewhere that has a great educational program on learning cross-cultural anthropology, language, history, conservationism and culture. Immerse yourself in a place to learn what you can from the local teachers and people. Don't view your role as volunteering. Chances are, you won't have much to offer, but rather a great deal to learn from the host country. And if the opportunity comes up to serve, then great! If not, that is okay. Whatever you do, don't go with the idea that you are going to make a difference in your surroundings.The difference that happens will be internal, in your life. Later in your career, service opportunities will emerge as you develop your specialty training."
What Sort of Competencies?
Most students who participate in a global experience will grow in their appreciation of other cultures, an important global health competency. There are other global health competencies that students can acquire without even stepping into a healthcare setting including: understanding the global burden of disease, health disparities within and between countries, social conditions that influence health, and developing a sense of social responsibility.
On a personal level, global experiences can enhance students' capacity for ambiguity, self-sufficiency, and self-awareness, all important qualities in a healthcare professional.
A global experience can also help students identify what they want to do in their health professional career. According to Crump and Sugarman, "Health science students participating in global health field experiences have been shown to be more likely to care for the poor and ethnic minorities, to change their focus from sub-specialty training to primary care medicine, to report improved diagnostic skills, and to express increased interest in volunteerism, humanitarianism, and public health."
Tips to Increase Cultural Competencies
The purpose of studying abroad is to have a cross-cultural experience, so encourage students to look for programs that offer significant cultural integration. Extensive involvement in the host culture leads to personal growth and builds the cross-cultural skills that are important to future success as a health professional.
Encourage students to seek programs that house them with a host family. If they aren't working in a health care setting, they can still learn much about the broader context of health and the social systems that support health if they look for experiences such as internships, service-learning, or research opportunities.