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Why you should or shouldn’t go on an overseas medical service trip (Part 1)

Should Pre-Med Students go on "medical tourism" trips?

By Ariel Lee

As a pre-med student, I was very interested in going abroad on a medical service trip abroad. I genuinely wanted to contribute to organizations providing medical relief and aid to underserved populations abroad. I was also excited about the possibility of going to another country to broaden my perspective of the world. However, I was largely uninformed about exactly what a medical service trip entails, the reality of how much impact I could make on a trip, the complexity of cultural notions of health abroad, the dangers of “voluntourism,” and more. In this two-part article, I will be sharing my reasons for and against going on a medical service trip, with insights from my personal experiences on two week-long trips to El Salvador and Peru.

Some background: in my freshman year of college, I joined the executive board of a service club on campus called the Foundation of Medical Relief of Children (FIMRC). FIMRC is a global nonprofit organization that works to provide access to quality healthcare and health education (with a focus on preventative health) to community members in underserved countries. It has project sites around the world, including: Costa Rica, India, Philippines, and more. One way that FIMRC is able to sustain their year-round projects in these locations is by hosting volunteers for service trips (ranging from one week to whole summers). Volunteers pay a hefty sum to go on these trips, which partly goes towards paying the salaries of corporate and on-the-ground staff members. (Full disclosure: I became President of the FIMRC chapter on campus in my sophomore year, a position I held for two years. However, I will attempt to present an unbiased perspective of my experiences in this article.) During my stint in FIMRC, I helped organize and personally attended two week-long trips over spring breaks to project sites in Las Delicias, El Salvador and La Merced, Peru.

To begin, here are some reasons for why you SHOULD go on a service trip:

  • To gain real-world exposure to health issues faced by people living in low-income areas.

Granted, America has its own set of issues when it comes to providing health care to low-income populations. On a service trip abroad, however, you will get the opportunity to witness firsthand the health problems in low-income areas which are unique to the geography and culture of another country. For example, during my trip to El Salvador, I saw the need for basic preventative health education. Many locals living in rural, impoverished communities were far removed from health care and had limited access to education. They were uneducated about the differences between stagnant and drinking water and how drinking stagnant water can lead to the spread of many waterborne diseases. On my trip to Peru, I shadowed an infectious diseases doctor at a public hospital, where I saw many advanced cases of tuberculosis, which could have been treated had they been detected earlier.

  • To contribute to sustainable efforts to improve health of communities.

As I will explain later, the reality of medical service trips is that they are part of a much larger endeavor to re-shape the cultural notions of health in a specific area over a long time. As a volunteer on one of these trips, you should not expect to make a huge difference overnight. However, you will be able to contribute to the sustainable efforts of the larger organization—both physically and financially. Although the difference you make is small in the grander scheme of things, you will still be able to participate in ongoing projects to improve the health of locals. For example, I took part in preparing and teaching a mini-curriculum to elementary school children on healthy habits such as brushing teeth, covering your nose and mouth in a dust cloud, and washing hands. (We were told that as foreigners, we have an appeal that gives us more credibility when teaching these lessons.)

  • To immerse yourself in a foreign culture, expand your worldview, and develop cultural competence.

A big benefit of going on a medical service trip abroad is the once-in-a lifetime opportunity to immerse yourself in a different culture (in a way that you can’t on a vacation), thereby expanding your worldview and understanding of cultural competency. In Peru, I stayed with fellow volunteers in a homestay, hosted by a kind elderly couple who had lived in the area for many years. We ate traditional Peruvian food prepared by the host mom and were also shown around the area by some of the FIMRC staff that were also locals. The other volunteers and I had a blast eating delicious Peruvian donuts and “cheefa”—Peruvian Chinese food. During the trip, we also learned some of the subtler cultural notions in Peru. For example, we learned that Peruvians do not take schedules very seriously. They will often show up late to appointments, and this is not considered rude—and should even be expected! Relating to a different culture can help you practice cultural competence—or provide care specific to a patient’s particular cultural background.

  • To learn and improve in another language.

Another lesser known benefit of going on a medical service trip abroad is being forced to learn and speak in another language. While you will not be able to learn an entirely new language from scratch on a service trip, you will definitely be able to pick up some vocabulary and common speech phrases on the trips. Personally, I had taken high school and college level Spanish courses, so I had some foundational Spanish before going on these trips. During my trip to El Salvador, I was the only “Spanish speaker” in my volunteer group, so I was forced to serve as a translator despite my broken Spanish. To my surprise, I was able to pick up on Spanish pretty quickly and could soon carry a normal conversation with a native speaker. I shockingly learned more Spanish in one week than I had in my entire high school and college careers.

  • To shadow a variety of specialties.

In the States, it can be a challenge to find shadowing opportunities, and more so to shadow a variety of specialties. On service trips abroad (depending on the organization), however, you will be given opportunities to shadow different specialties. For example, in Peru, I shadowed an Orthopedics and Infectious Diseases physicians in a single day. This exposed me to specialties that I otherwise would not have had the opportunity to shadow.

  • To compare other health care systems to the U.S.

A huge benefit of going on overseas medical service trips is learning the differences between health care systems at home and abroad. On my service trips to El Salvador and Peru, I was exposed to two different types of healthcare systems. The El Salvadoran healthcare system comprises of private and public healthcare facilities, similar to that of the U.S. Private facilities serve the wealthy who can afford it, while public facilities serve the rest of the population. I witnessed the extreme disparity in care firsthand, as I saw how public clinics were understaffed and under-resourced. The Peruvian government, on the other hand, has adopted a Universal Health Insurance Law which automatically registers everyone under a universal health insurance. While this promises coverage for every citizen, I witnessed how public hospitals were scarce and frequently too understaffed, especially in rural areas, provide sufficient care.

Stay tuned for part two of “Why you should or shouldn’t go on an overseas medical service trip,” in which I will be sharing reasons for why you SHOULDN’T go on a medical service trip. 

Ariel Lee

Ariel Lee is a graduate of Brandeis University in the class of 2018 with a B.S. in Biology and Anthropology. She is medical student in the class of 2023. Her areas of interest include: geriatrics, end-of-life care, and the intersection of spirituality and medicine. In addition to writing for Prospective Doctor, she runs a blog at lightandsalt.org, where she writes on her journey in the Christian faith and other personal reflections.

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