From inconvenience to opportunity: the importance of international medical exchanges

ifmsa-2016

IFMSA, 2016

This article was exclusively written for the Sting by Ms Laura Kalkman. The writer is a fourth year medical student from The Netherlands.  Mrs Kalkman is affiliated to the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA).

I vividly remember the feeling of desperation in my chest when I was being told no by the study advisor of my university. As National Exchange Officer of the International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations in The Netherlands I had worked immensely hard, for months, to provide medical students with the best international exchange opportunities possible. But no, I was not allowed to represent our exchanges at an international meeting because I was not permitted to reschedule a compulsory class. Was it not clear to my university how important these international exchanges and my role in arranging them were? How could the impact of our exchanges on students’ lives and global health awareness not be obvious?

Globalization has transformed our society. As health is connected with many physical, mental and social dimensions, globalization impacts health, health disparities and our understanding of health. Moreover, because of increased mobility, diseases are no longer limited by national borders, local populations are becoming increasingly diverse and many doctors are able to work worldwide. How can we prepare future doctors to practice in this fast changing, globalizing world?

One of the most powerful ways of learning is learning by experience. By participating in an international exchange and working in another health system, students can gain insight in the differences between health and healthcare worldwide. Such an experience is vital in order to have an understanding of health disparities, which can then activate a desire to plead for changes in global health areas such as access to healthcare. Moreover, it is very difficult to be critical towards your own health system if you have no knowledge of the alternatives. By experiencing a different health system, one can finally see the advantages and disadvantages of the health system in one’s own country and advocate for improvements.

Similarly, in order to adapt to and communicate properly with patients from all over the world, a future doctor must recognize how their own cultural values influence their convictions and practice. There is no better way to become conscious of and challenge your own worldview than to submerge yourself in a different culture by participating in an international exchange.

Finally, doctors of the future in general and the global health leaders of tomorrow specifically will need the right experience and the confidence to advocate for improvements. Studies show that exchange students experience significant personal growth and boost, for example, their confidence, creativity, independence, assertiveness and resilience (see: Erasmus Impact Study; The outcomes of outbound student mobility: a summary of academic literature).

When I was on the phone with my study advisor who told me arranging exchanges was not a valid reason to reschedule a class, I felt there was something wrong. At the time, I did not have the strength or the experience to find the right words to reply. However, I promised myself I would find the words to explain the importance of international exchanges and their impact on global health awareness the next time I or any other student would be told their engagement in global health is an inconvenience. Being told no has made me more passionate about advocating for the importance of exchanges and international opportunities than I could have imagined at the time. It taught me every setback is indeed a great opportunity for awareness. I truly hope others can find their passion to be involved in improving global health by a more positive experience, such as an international exchange.

About the author

Laura Kalkman is a 4th year medical student from The Netherlands, who has worked within IFMSA as Local Exchange Officer, National Exchange Officers and International Affairs Director of IFMSA-NL. She has been on exchange to New Zealand to study international relations, politics and anthropology for one semester and will participate in an IFMSA professional exchange to Tunisia in March.

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