International medicine is among the most valuable experiences not only for residents and students, but for physicians from all specialties. Emergency medicine (EM) physicians, in particular, have previously been highlighted with critical qualities and characteristics essential to successfully providing medical aid and care in some of the most remote regions, rugged wilderness, and disaster zones. In recent years, the practice of physicians travelling overseas with the goal of outreach, and professional and personal development, has been met with the flux of international patients travelling to the United States and Canada in search of medical treatment, as well as international physicians seeking to develop their own clinical skills and enhance medical practices to take back home. Physicians and patients both face challenges associated with these new experiences: the stresses of traveling, financial concerns, family obligations, cultural practices, and preparing for the unknown. As such, it is important to remember that patients also encounter anxiety, cultural and communication differences, have concerns for the continuity of care associated with filling in missing gaps in their own medical records and fluctuating medical aid providers and often lack medical knowledge and understanding of health issues. Interactions that patients have with visiting physicians can also allow patients to gain insight into new practices, cultures and traditions. These experiences can be life-changing for everyone involved.
While global outreach, international medicine or disaster preparedness isn’t for everyone, it is important to remember that global health does not equate to the definition of international medicine, and that there is a strong need for domestic medical outreach in rural America and Canada, in locations that present with similar challenges of underserved patient populations and with limited resources. Nonetheless, the benefits of medical work in new environments outside of comfort zones can provide tremendous benefits and contributes to the overall continuous development of a well-rounded physician. The advantages of participating in global health and international medicine are extensive, and this article highlights only some of the major benefits.
Strengthen leadership, communication and interpersonal skills
Before EM physicians begin their medical work with patients, the potential to strengthen leadership, communication and interpersonal skills through interactions with local residents is often experienced with language being a major factor in effective communication. This includes not only the spoken word, knowledge of key phrases in the native tongue, but the use of body language, eye contact, and hand gestures. Understanding different approaches to patient scheduling, staff and local perceptions about meal, travel and leisure times, administrative and medical support, and negotiation and conflict management skills, allows for a more productive and enjoyable experience. Further, not only are individual skills, but so is teamwork and an understanding of the functional dynamics. Participation in outreach contributes to the development of many skills including independent decision making, project management (from funding to administration, allocation of materials and supplies, to public relations and follow up), and creativity in the face of limited resources.
Exposure to patients contributes to cultural awareness, understanding of the impact of socioeconomic factors on health care, historical and geographical issues, and puts to use clinical and language skills while immersed in a new environment. Participating in local events is a valuable learning experience, and clinical work in the developing world or remote rural locations in North America can contribute to a physician’s ability to understand and advocate for patient health care needs.
These basics will allow for a better understanding of cultural differences, institutional and policy barriers, communication barriers, managing through unknown and incomplete medical records, financial constraints which can limit tests and treatments, and influence management as medical work begins. Numerous resources are available for emergency physicians entering new environments for the first time to help provide insights regarding gender issues, cultural practices, religion, politics, current social events to name a few. It is important to do thorough background research into patient populations and to be aware of the community you will be entering. For EM physicians in rural North America, opportunities to work with nongovernment organizations and refugees can provide exposure to international and global patient populations who need your clinical skills and medical training. The American College of Emergency Physicians(1), Emergency Medicine Residents Association(2), Society for Academic Emergency Medicine(3), offer thorough information and resources for rotations and fellowships for international emergency medicine, and the American Academy of Family Physicians lists resources for physicians interested in Global Health(4). A list of additional reading and resources is provided below.
Exposure to new practices and health care systems
Physician shortages and limited financing of healthcare are global concerns; however, there is an excellent benefit for physicians who learn to treat and understand a variety of patient populations despite these limitations.
This is an essential obligation of EM physicians. International medical rotations are a concept that has slowly been incorporated into medical schools. Nearly ten years ago, a survey published in Academic Medicine concluded that international rotations broadened medical knowledge and reinforced physician examination skills(5).
Further, learning about other healthcare systems, medication preferences and availability, and equipment as well as protocols and practices, can allow for incorporating practices back home, as well as suggesting sustainable changes for improvement overseas.
The challenge of thinking outside the box and learning to be resourceful with equipment is yet another benefit to international medicine, where poverty-related diseases demand thoughtful consideration to resources and long-term management of patient cases. Distinguishing differences among clinical practice and procedural skills in a respectful, intuitive manner and with an understanding of varying standards of care and limited resources is also essential for international outreach. While dealing with these issues may be frustrating, maintaining confidence in one’s own training, calling on previous life experiences and harnessing multi-disciplinary teams with diverse cultural backgrounds, will prove to be beneficial in providing effective patient treatment. Besides, exposure to other health care systems can allow for research into the best strategies for administration and management, for not only physician practices, but for patients and health care systems at large.
Medical Knowledge, Self-Sufficiency, Resources and Equipment
Caring the patients reveal the diversity of diseases and disorders and provide insight on the local health care issues. The variety of cases differs between hospital and ambulatory settings. EM physicians have the opportunity to see and manage rare diseases and disorders uncommon back home, with a highlight on cases involving infectious diseases, toxicology, advanced diseases. Knowledge of disease presentations, prevalence, and exposure to the seemingly foreign diseases has been a recent consideration with the migration of people not only at the international scale, but at the local level across the States. Social, mental, and financial support is another layer that health care systems are working to provide for these vulnerable patient populations. Moreover, the added pressure of finding solutions for medical cases requiring advanced procedures can be disheartening, and EM physicians must become the nurse, specialist, social worker, therapist, surgeon, administrator, pharmacist and physical therapist all in one. Creative uses of equipment, thinking outside the box, and making use of what is available are other factors that will be frequently tested while in the field. Training in the wilderness and extreme medicine, as well as rural family medicine practices is advantageous for physicians in the global setting where multiple uses for one instrument is applied in various situations. Nonetheless, adhering to the training in medical school and residency is the basis for all medical work and ethical best practice, professionalism and management are the foundation to providing patient care regardless of location.
In response to the growing interest and need for physicians in underserved global populations, there has been an increase in funding opportunities.Prior to embarking into unknown territory and patient scenarios, it is recommended that a physician’s own resources are known, including potential health risks, and that support systems are in place in order to maintain a mental and physical balance to provide care where it is desperately needed. Culture shock, grief and sadness, personal debriefing and reflection, and adjusting to life back home is an additional element to tend to.
Outreach, Education, Research, Mentorship
The opportunity to provide preventative and screening information directly to patients through clinics and to physicians at training sessions allows for direct two-way communication, clarity and the sharing of knowledge bases. Additional outreach at clinics and mobile health units often add to the overall value and maximizes a physician’s ability to provide outreach and education. Furthermore, opportunities may exist for collaborations with clinicians and scientists as well as health policy advisors. Although the notion of global health has attracted the fad of medical tourism and entails a certain novelty of volunteering abroad, emergency physicians have a great opportunity to make a lasting difference on the lives of their patients as well as those of international colleagues who are either interested in practicing in North America(6) or who will stay with the communities and health systems they are in. Therefore, building and fostering a network of connections for the future is an important and positive outcome, with the potential to provide up to date journal articles, resources to evidence-based medicine and free online medical education, and can allow you to incorporate global health initiatives and outreach back home. At the end of the day, physicians who are driven to extend their medical knowledge and clinical skills into regions with a desperate need for health care and vulnerable patient populations are often those who have made the commitment to serve as an emergency physician.
The experience of a global project and working in a clinic on an international scale enables EM physicians and students from all levels of training to provide care in emergent situations from disaster and humanitarian relief to outreach clinics. For physicians and students who opted to pursue medical education in a global setting, as an international graduate or for North American physicians who thrive on global health and international outreach, the experiences are unlike those in North America, and there is an abundance of personal and professional learning and development to gain. Experiences outside of comfort zones, whether in rural America or overseas, create a global community to better medical practices and often advocacy for health care continues long after a global project has concluded.
This article touched on the advantages and benefits of stepping outside comfort zones to provide medical care to vulnerable patient populations, and a follow up to this article will be how to overcome the challenges and barriers that physicians may encounter. Have you participated in a global health project or international outreach? Please feel free to share your own thoughts and reflect on your experiences in the comments section below.
Additional Reading and Resources
- What is International Emergency Medicine? Academic Life in Emergency Medicine – link
- International Emergency Medicine Section, American College of Emergency Physicians – link
- The Practitioner’s Guide to Global Health, American College of Emergency Physicians – link
- US Residents: Discover the World with Emergency Medicine, Emergency Medicine Residents Association – link
- Fellowship Database, Society for Academics Emergency Medicine – link
Link To References
Images for Global Health and International Medicine courtesy of author, Bryn Dhir.