This past spring, I had the pleasure of spending a month with our site’s founder, Dr. Carter Boyd, doing a general surgery rotation at a public hospital in Lima, Peru. At our medical school, we have an Office of International Medical Education (IME), whose mission is to provide students both research and clinical experiences abroad. One of my biggest regrets of college was not studying abroad, so when I heard about this opportunity, I didn’t think twice.
My interest in learning medicine abroad was met with great enthusiasm by the director of IME, Dr. Majd Zayzafoon. His passion for enriching students’ experiences abroad is inspiring. I reached out to him regarding this article, and his response perfectly embodies how he feels about medical student international experiences.
From Dr. Zayzafoon: “The true value of international clinical training for medical students may be immeasurable in some ways, but thankfully, I have seen tangible evidence over the years for how this training has shaped and made a positive impact on our medical students who are now practicing physicians. Through cross-cultural learning and language immersion in the medical field, our students gain exposure to a wider variety of illnesses and learn to adapt with limited resources in underserved populations around the globe. Given our current situation and global pandemic, these skills will prove invaluable as we move through this new phase in medical history. There is no better time for our students to collaborate and train with fellow physicians around the world and learn from their experiences. It is so rewarding to witness the changes in our students after they return home from their international clinical electives and hear how these opportunities have influenced them in personal and professional ways. The ultimate goal is to gain a ‘whole world’ understanding of medicine and help improve healthcare for every member of society.”
With the support of Dr. Zayzafoon and the IME office, we set off to Lima. In some ways, our experience was similar to academic medicine in the US. There are attendings, residents, interns, and medical students. They have rounds and afternoon didactics. In other ways, it could not have been more different. While we played a competitive quiz game on biliary diseases from smartphones in lecture, nurses in the other room were using the paper charts to complete orders for the day. Progress notes are actual hand-written notes, and all the patients on the ward (35-40 total) were in one large room together. The discrepancies in resources between this hospital and academic centers in the US where we train was shocking to me. Observing this disparity and working in a lower resource setting is something that every medical student would benefit from.
“The ultimate goal is to gain a ‘whole world’ understanding of medicine and help improve healthcare for every member of society.”Dr. Majd Zayzafoon, International Medical Education, UAB School of Medicine
Outside the hospital, my eyes were opened to an entirely new culture. This was my first experience living abroad, and it did not disappoint. From art museums to restaurants to soccer games, we did our best to explore every aspect of Peruvian culture that Lima had to offer. We also took the opportunity to travel to Cusco and the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu. There is a magic about Machu Picchu that is truly indescribable. Seeing one of the Seven Wonders of the World will forever be one of my favorite days of my life.
As a future physician, this experience had a drastic impact on how I will practice medicine in the future. Being a non-native Spanish speaker in a Spanish speaking country showed me just how difficult it is for patients in the United States who do not speak English. Every interaction with medical staff, nurses, and doctors is made exponentially more difficult when a language barrier exists. Even basic questions can be misunderstood and lead to errors in patient care. My experience made me even more passionate about working with Spanish-speaking populations in the US, and I know it will help you find or further embolden a similar passion within medicine too.
In short, if you have the opportunity to travel and practice medicine abroad, take it. For 4th years (and maybe even 3rd years), this may be yet another on the list of opportunities that may not come again. But for those in preclinical years, take an active role in finding out if your school has a similar avenue for international medical experiences. Find out if clinical departments at your school take trips that have opportunities for students. You’ll see and do new things in medicine, experience a new part of the world, and you’ll be a better doctor because of it.
Have you considered traveling abroad for a medical experience? Comment or share your questions below.