Why exchange programs are essential for the medical students of the 21st century


(IFMSA, 2016)

This article was exclusively written for the Sting by Mr Amro Aglan. The writer is a final year medical student from Egypt.  Mr Aglan is affiliated to the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA).

Can going on an exchange program prepare medical students for tomorrow’s health challenges? Is it really worth it to explore health systems in  different cultural and social settings? Is it necessary to learn more about Global Health challenges while studying medicine?

There is no doubt that society in general is becoming increasingly globalized, and this is seen through increased international travel, as well as increasing globalization of multiple sectors ranging from food supply to commerce. Together with the prevalence of multinational epidemics such as the 2009 Influenza epidemic, and more recently the MERS, Ebola, and Zika virus outbreaks show an increased importance of global health knowledge and need to tie together economy, culture, politics, human rights, and law, using the lens of how they impact health.

Accordingly, there has been a large movement from the 20th century when medical education was reviewed as the delivery of medical and scientific knowledge to students, towards a much more comprehensive global model in the 21st century. It is now evident that medical students’ ability to become competent and compassionate physicians is rooted in how they understand the causes of illness, and how this affects the needs of their patients.

Nowadays, Medical students are increasingly aware of the relevance of global health education and there is a strong interest in global health career pathways, with a recent American study showing that close to 70% of medical students were very interested in serving in a global medical environment later in their career. [1] However, despite the demand and interest in the topic, there is a lack of consistency on an international level, and a lack of consensus on what constitutes adequate global health education for medical students. According to a recent cross-sectional study conducted in three IFMSA international general assemblies, only 14% of medical students thought they had received sufficient teaching on global health. [2]

Noting the importance of global health related skillsets to future medical professionals and the severity and extensive impact of these global health issues, the next question that follows is: What are the possible opportunities to learn about global health? Actually there are different opportunities including summer schools, online courses, research opportunities, and last but not least, overseas clinical training such as electives, observerships or other exchange programs.

Going on an exchange program in a different country can be a unique global health experience as it allows you to observe environmental factors that can affect the health of the community: safe water and clean air, healthy workplaces, safe houses, communities and roads, transportation options, employment and working conditions.
It gives you the opportunity to observe the health care systems in the country: do people in the country have access to health care services? How are health care services distributed to them? This can be done through visiting different hospitals and health institutions and comparing public and private healthcare quality. In addition, interviewing health professionals to get their opinions regarding health inequities and to see their level of involvement in the health community in addressing this challenge can also be very useful.

You can join different public health conferences and activities in order to get involved in the major public health challenges of the community. In addition, visiting different schools can help you understand how education levels are affecting the health of a population.

In conclusion, going on an exchange program abroad can be one of the best opportunities to learn about global health while studying medicine. It helps you compare health systems in different countries and get inspired to take action, It helps you get equipped with necessary skills and proper knowledge needed for future health challenges, it helps you think outside the box, adapt easily to a new environment and prepare yourself for new situations.

(1)    Liebe S, Elliott A and M Bien. “Student Interest and Knowledge Concerning Global Health Electives: A USD Sanford School of Medicine Study.” Scholarship Pathways Program Research. University of South Dakota, 2011.

(2) Anya Göpfert, Hussein Mohamedbhai, Josko Mise, Anne Driessen, Ambreen Shakil, Ann Fitzmaurice and Wendy Graham. “DO MEDICAL STUDENTS WANT TO LEARN ABOUT GLOBAL HEALTH?”

About the author

Amro Aglan is a final year medical student from Egypt, He has been involved in International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations (IFMSA) Exchange programs during the last 4 years and last year he was appointed as International General Assistant for IFMSA Professional Exchanges. He is currently the president of IFMSA-Egypt and intern at WHO Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social determinants.


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