Practicing healthcare through a global lens

surgery

(Piron Guillaume, Unsplash)

This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Ms. Jasmine Hui, a third-year medical student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She is affiliated to the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA), cordial partner of The Sting. The opinions expressed in this piece belong strictly to the writer and do not necessarily reflect IFMSA’s view on the topic, nor The European Sting’s one.


Every physician begins their medical education by taking the Hippocratic oath – promising to do no harm and to help patients to the best of their abilities. The standard-of-care physicians strive to deliver is largely based upon the four bioethics principles: autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence and justice.

However, the application of such a standard in one’s home country may differ greatly in a foreign country. The importance of realizing social and cultural differences between societies is vital in crafting culturally appropriate care. A good healthcare professional is able to recognize their inherent biases in perceiving “otherness”, and thus, have an ability to align their care with the values of patients in foreign countries.

Improving global health has constantly been on the agenda for developed countries – many health professionals donate their time and effort to treat those in need. However, one could argue that a good healthcare professional is not solely defined on the basis of having altruistic intentions.

When one practices global medicine, they have to become familiar with the culture, beliefs and traditions of recipients – adjusting care which respects their values. Stepping into a foreign culture, there may be practices which are perceived to be inappropriate or “strange” in one’s home country. Nonetheless, a good healthcare professional would approach the scenario with neutrality – free from as much cultural and contextual bias as possible. To realize cultural differences requires critical reflection but would ultimately strengthen trust and understanding between visiting physicians and locals.

A good healthcare professional is able to reflect and question their routine actions. For example, realizing that the purpose of healthcare changes according to one’s patients and access to resources (e.g. infrastructure, surgical tools, drugs, long-term plans). When practicing at home, the goal of healthcare may be to ensure patient autonomy is respected by effective and thorough communication, as well as, providing the best available treatment and drugs to patients.

However, in the context of foreign aid, such goals are subject to other ethical concerns. Who do you choose to help when you don’t have enough medicine? Can we pursue a utilitarian approach of treating the most patients at the expense of delivering a lower standard of care? The outcomes of healthcare can be greatly limited in these countries but are nonetheless, are equally driven by the principle of non-maleficence.

There are great challenges when practicing healthcare in a global setting. Is it ever enough to just provide the bare minimum for people to survive? The struggle to strike a balance between optimism and pragmatism poses a challenge. Nonetheless, a good healthcare professional who aims to deliver the best care would be considerate of culture, be self-aware and ethically reflective. To effectively tackle these moral issues would be a direct response to treating humanity in medicine.

About the author

Jasmine Hui is a third-year medical student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She is part of the Asian Medical Students’ Association (AMSA) Hong Kong and is interested in
bioethics, public health and medical law.

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