This article was exclusively written for the Sting by Ms Xiya Ma. The writer is a medical student from Québec (Canada) who has served as national officer of research exchanges for the Québec chapter of the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA-Québec) for the past 2 years. She is affiliated to the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA).
For many of us, there’s nothing more exciting than going on an exchange: the thrill of the unknown and the opportunity to combine travelling and learning. Exchanges represent a practical way for medical students to learn about global health: how medicine works abroad as well as the advantages and challenges of a different medical system.
However, as an IFMSA Québec exchange officer for 3 years and an exchange student for 2 summers, I cannot stress how important it is for students to attend a thorough, well-designed pre-departure training so they can gain the most out of their learning experience on global health. If carried out properly, the training will prime them not only for the logistical aspect of travelling, but also the complexity of cultural differences and the ethics surrounding our acts abroad.
Pre-departure trainings allow students to learn about the culture of their destination, but most importantly to recognize a phenomenon we refer to as “culture shock”. Changing sociocultural environments, while exciting, is a stress, and everyone reacts differently towards it. Should that reaction give feelings of discomfort, frustration and confusion, then the student is going through a culture shock.
If students have not been taught on how to deal with culture shock, they could unwillingly isolate themselves from the local community, idealize their home country and live a generally negative experience. Luckily, such a situation, while virtually unavoidable, can be remediated if one knows how to accept their shock and work with their new environment.
For instance, in IFMSA-Québec’s pre-departure training, we equip our students with techniques to cope with culture shock through adapting to the local community and developing an open mindset to learning.
Pre-departure trainings are also the ideal time for students to reflect on how they would react in ethically challenged situations. For instance, how should one deal with a different hospital hierarchy system? Which medical acts should or should not be performed by the student? What topics of discussions are acceptable for the local people?
It is a great occasion to gather previous participants to share their experiences on the topic as well as simulate situations in which students may encounter ethical dilemmas. Preparing students in advance will help them make better decisions once on the ground.
I believe the most important thing to remember while on an exchange is that we are there to learn from them, and not the other way around. As medical students, our capabilities are often too limited to be of substantial help to the local communities, and it is essential to realize that our presence could become a liability should their resources be limited.
The simplest way we can give back is by staying humble, open-minded and respectful of the customs. As visiting students, we also bring a new perspective about our culture and medicine to the local community. Indeed, exchanges are all about “exchanging” so to better understand how we can tackle the challenges of global health together.
About the author
Xiya is a medical student from Québec (Canada) who has served as national officer of research exchanges for the Québec chapter of the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA-Québec) for the past 2 years. She also works at the international level as a supervising board member for IFMSA’s research exchanges committee (SCORE). She has been involved in numerous pre-departure trainings in her local organization and firmly believes in the necessity to prepare medical students accordingly before they go abroad.