Medical students seeking experience to flesh out their resumes often volunteer their skills abroad in government, NGO, or mission-oriented service. Project length may range from a few weeks to a year or longer. While the potential benefits are tempting, the challenges of international volunteering must also be considered.

Health concerns

In tropical or remote locations, travelling medical students may become infected by foreign diseases like malaria, typhus, or cholera. Receiving vaccinations as recommended by a specialist physician can help to protect medical students from contracting these illnesses. But gastrointestinal and respiratory illnesses are common in developing countries and may afflict visiting medical personnel or be contracted from patients. Hygienic precautions must be taken as a preventative measure.

Safety issues

Other locales around the globe may pose safety concerns. For example, venomous snakes and invertebrates are more of a concern in certain regions abroad than in the U.S. Gang activity or criminal behaviour may be present in your area. Unfamiliar weather patterns and climates should also be noted and prepared for before relocating. Even local food and water can pose risks without the right precautions.

Political tensions

Americans tend to be unpopular in certain parts of the Middle East, Asia, and even less obvious parts of the world, like Europe. For this reason, American medical students may be viewed with suspicion by local residents. In rare cases, this can lead to violent confrontations, or avoidance at a minimum, which inhibits the work of the medical practitioner. Warring factions within a region or a war-torn area sometimes cause casualties among innocent civilians, including international medical students who are there to help the wounded and sick. It is important for the sponsoring agency to obtain the proper clearances and assurances that the medical team will be protected during its stay in the country.

Cultural disconnect

Working with a foreign population to treat conditions not commonly found in the United States may not always serve a medical student’s career interests. It may not strengthen a resume to indicate the student worked among civilians injured in a battle between warring factions if that is a position not likely to exist in the U.S. after graduation. Similarly, working with diseases like leprosy does not necessarily help to prepare a medical student to become a better internal medicine specialist at home, especially if more specialized training is available in the U.S. Working with injured children near a battlefront is not likely to be the same as treating everyday children’s illnesses at home. Although there may be overlap, it is likely to be limited, especially working with children whose backgrounds are markedly different from the home population regarding socio-economic status and general health conditions.

Delayed Medical graduation

Volunteering abroad may sometimes count toward academic credit that leads to graduation from medical school. In some cases, it might not. This means the medical student’s graduation is delayed by the amount of time spent overseas working in a completely different environment with a distinct population that may vary significantly from the U.S. medical practice goal. Students who are thinking about spending time abroad volunteering their medical knowledge to sharpen their skills and gain experience should consider whether the trade-off for a postponed graduation date is worth it.

Sharing medical expertise in a foreign country may seem like a romanticized notion of becoming a knight in shining armor for people in need. However, the risks and drawbacks should be thoughtfully weighed before committing to an overseas volunteer experience, especially an extended one. Talking with others who have volunteered medical service abroad may be enlightening, as well as discussing with prospective employers.