Medical Work in Developing Countries

March 15, 2014

Article by Global Pre-Meds
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As a medical professional trained in the Western traditions and technologies of healthcare, you might be interested in taking your expertise and knowledge to another part of the world.  This is a noble, respectable pursuit, one that both feeds the need to be altruistic and satiates your wanderlust. Traveling to a developing country to practice medicine is a compassionate use of your medical training and will reveal a world full of diversity, struggle, and hope.  As a pre medical student, planning ahead to pursue medical work in developing countries will prepare you for the triumphs and obstacles you will face. 

Take Specialized Courses in Tropical Medicine and Rural Healthcare

Many universities offer classes at the undergraduate level on tropical medicine, rural environments, and international development.  It would serve well your interest in performing medical work in developing countries by seeking out and taking as many of these courses as you can, so that you can be informed of the complex issues and cultural differences involved in traveling and working abroad. If you must wait till you enter the graduate level to take this line of coursework, that’s alright too; just be sure to get training from our American experts who have previously worked in the field and can educate you about the challenges and realities of providing medical care in a developing country.  Book work, of course, does not always align to the experiences of the real world, but you’ll want to obtain a foundation of knowledge before you make a final decision about leaving.

You’ll Be One In a Million

The above statement might be an exaggeration, but it’s true that, depending upon which community to ultimately decide to call a second home, you might just be the only medical professional available to meet the needs of multitudes.  The more remote the community in a Assisting patients on the warddeveloping country, the less likely it is to have a Western trained medical professional.  You are likely to be very welcomed in your new community, but you should also expect to be viewed as an outsider and treated as such until you’ve established yourself and proven your abilities.  You’ll need to work with the community’s healers and find common ground in the provision of patient care.  Once you’ve proven your worth, you should expect to be working around the clock.  In the developing world, a minor injury or illness can lead to death. Your talents will be in high demand to care for and treat community members. Multi-tasking, patience, calmness, and integrity are key competencies you’ll want to cultivate before you head off to practice medicine in the developing world.

Demand Greater Than Supply

Basic medical supplies are often in short supply in developing countries.  If you pursue this work through an organization such as Doctors Without Borders or the American Red Cross, you are more likely to have access to a stocked supply of the tools of the medical trade.  Be prepared though to make tough calls during triage and treatment.  You may not have enough of the basic supplies you need to do your work well, particularly if there is an emergency or outbreak within your community. Look to the local healers for support, but know that there are brutal, unfortunate realities you’ll be faced with when you perform your medical work in a developing country.

Not Everything That Works At Home Will Work Abroad…

In many developing countries, high tech medical equipment donated from abroad makes up the bulk of a clinic or hospital’s stock.  However, you’ll be surprised to learn that up to 80% of medical equipment donations go to waste and sit unused. In a developing country, you will quickly learn that much of what works at home does not work abroad.  The medical equipment you take for granted as standard in a Western hospital or clinic is not likely to be available for your use, or if it’s present, your community may be lacking the energy sources to run it.  If it breaks, there are no spare parts to fix it. If you have access to medical equipment, you should take advantage to use it to diagnose and treat your patient, but be ready to go low tech before you reach for the high tech medical equipment.  In many developing countries, using your diagnostic and treatment skills without a reliance on technology to confirm or treat should be your preferred path to patient care.

…But You’ll Be Surprised By What Does Work.

Though your work will send you to the remotest parts of the world, there is one commonality that developed and developing countries have – the ubiquity of the cell phone.  Recent research done by Microsoft reveals that, in many developing countries, communities are more likely to have access to cell phones than to clean water.  This astounding finding will allow you to reach out to other communities when needed, in a crisis situation or simply as a social call to a nearby Western physician.  As the world becomes increasingly smaller, the cell phone is your lifeline during your work. 

Frequent Discomfort

Don’t be surprised to learn that your level of comfort can be significantly diminished during your stay in a developing country.  If you are in a high needs community, sleep may be rare or interrupted.  Additionally, you may find yourself falling ill with any infectious diseases common among community members (think malaria). If you are accustomed to living a certain lifestyle in a comfortable environment, the rugged nature of the living conditions and unpredictability of the weather might shock your sensibilities. To avoid these problems before making a long term commitment to performing medical work in a developing country, take the opportunity to visit and spend time when you are not committed to stay beyond a limited period.  You might find that, what looks like an idealistic opportunity to serve the under-served and disenfranchised, is not an experience that you are truly built for… and that’s ok! It’s better to know before you are locked into a long term partnership with your new community.

Medical professionals have special talents and gifts that much of the global population does not possess.  This is why they are so treasured and valued across the world in nearly all settings.  If you are a pre medical student poised to travel the globe, you are in luck.  Your services are in demand all over the world! — Post by Madelaine Kingsbury.