Tuesday, September 29th, 2015

The Evolving Face of Global Health Education

Stefan Kale Wheat

I sat in the clinic waiting room working on multiplication problems while patients waited to see my parents. At nine, I tried not to let myself become distracted by the elderly Nepali women who liked to run their fingers through my blonde hair. When it was a busy day in the clinic and we had to stay late, my dad would give me a writing assignment to pass the time. People would walk for days to visit the clinic my parents ran in Bandipur, in the foothills of the Himalaya. They were the only physicians for nearly a 50 mile radius, so I tended to get a lot of writing assignments.

My parents’ clinic in Nepal represented the traditional and now outmoded style of practicing medicine in an international setting. It’s often referred to as the “medical tourism” model of global health. The standard was for western physicians to set up shop in remote parts of the developing world and serve those most in the need: people with no other access to health care. While well-meaning, this approach to practicing medicine abroad has fallen by the wayside as the trend has moved toward more sustainable models.

The increasingly globalized nature of healthcare delivery has dramatically increased the number of students taking global health electives from all facets of healthcare training, including medical, nursing, public health, and veterinary medicine. The explosion of participation in global health electives has required that the models of training in global health reflect a more sustainable approach. An important and well recognized component is the need for a bi-directional exchange of personnel and capacity building through teaching.

Less than a year after I graduated from college, my father and I joined Health in Harmony, a conservation medicine NGO working in West Kalimantan, Indonesia on the island of Borneo. Here we witnessed an approach to global health that differed markedly from our former experience working on the slopes of the Himalaya. Visiting physicians, including my father, worked strictly in a teaching capacity, training young Indonesian practitioners who came to the clinic to gain experience in rural healthcare delivery. Though dramatically different from his prior experience working internationally, this role remained gratifying for my father because he was able to learn how local physicians were able to practice extraordinary medicine in a severely resource-limited setting. Recognizing the value of tapping into the immense clinical expertise of these local practitioners, Yale and Stanford have both sent students to work in the Health in Harmony clinic on a global health elective. In turn, Indonesian practitioners traveled to Yale to learn from the opposite side of the resource spectrum, allowing for a truly bidirectional exchange.

While the problem of sustainability in global health is well recognized and has emerged as a target for reform, numerous other challenges still exist. Chief among these challenges is that students participating in global health electives usually only commit short term. The current paradigm of the global health elective sees many students participating during their fourth year, rarely leading to any lasting international commitment. A part of this problem can be attributed to structural issues including debt repayment and difficulty finding international employment. However, as with the problem of bidirectional exchange, the fact that so few medical students engage in global health in the long term can be ascribed to the holdover medical tourism paradigm of the global health elective. We cannot expect students to fully appreciate the value that comes from working internationally after a single global health experience, haphazardly inserted into an education largely devoid of supplementary global health training. Therefore, new models should seek to integrate international electives into a larger framework of global health education.

Zim groupThe elective that I am participating in through the University of Vermont College of Medicine explicitly addresses the problem of student retention in global health electives by engaging students earlier in their education. My education as a global health scholar began with a six week rotation in a Zimbabwe hospital following my first year in medical school. Walking through the wards, it was not uncommon to see patients having prolonged seizures. Many of the patients suffered from HIV or tuberculosis. This was not a surprise because in Zimbabwe, the prevalence of HIV is estimated at around 16%. Too often we encounter patients with CD4 counts (a measure of the deterioration of the host’s immune system where normal values are between 500 and 1,500 cells per cubic millimeter of blood) in the single digits. When asked why they stopped their Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy (HAART), the standard of care for patients with HIV consisting of at least three drugs, many of these patients will tell you that their traditional or spiritual healer told them to. The result of relying solely on their traditional practices can be devastating. While, according to the local medical students, this problem is improving and patients are recognizing the need for a combined spiritual and medical approach to their ailments, it can be heart wrenching to hear these stories.

My experience in Zimbabwe accounts for just the beginning of my education in global health. Over the next three years as a medical student, I will participate in further training and ultimately return to the same hospital as a fourth year. This early exposure combined with the continuing education represents a new model of the global health elective aimed at developing a new generation of physicians who appreciate the increasingly globalized nature of healthcare and who are more likely to remain committed to integrating global health service into their careers. I am excited to be a part of this program—a collaboration between UVM and Western Connecticut Health Network—that seems uniquely poised to help transform the way we think about global health education.


About Stefan Wheat

Stefan Stefan is a second year medical student at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. He grew up at the base of the Puget Sound in Washington State catching frogs and looking up to his parents, both of whom work as primary care physicians while balancing the antics of Stefan and his two brothers.  He finds peace in skiing, writing, and mountain biking and very much looks forward to learning how to keep bees and brew a mean oatmeal stout

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