International Health Career FAQs
The most important qualifications for international health service are a willing spirit and selfless attitude. Very few persons become wealthy or famous in this challenging field. But for those motivated out of genuine humane concern, the rewards are potentially bountiful. International health colleagues are often some of the most exemplary and inspiring of individuals. Some international health career tracts include:
- One-on-one patient care, especially in times of humanitarian crisis when local healthcare infrastructure is compromised
- Public health leadership, usually to address larger scale logistics of disease prevention, treatment and rehabilitation
- Research into long-term solutions for diseases prevention and control, such as ongoing efforts to develop effective vaccines against malaria in tuberculosis
- Teaching and skill development among local healthcare professionals, that their vision and capacity for service become enhanced
- Policy development on national and international levels, with the aim of directing attention and resources toward global health concerns
Some international health professionals combine multiple elements of service. One remarkable example is Dennis Burkitt, a British general practice physician caring for patients in Uganda in the 1950s and 1960s. An inquisitive individual, he noticed multiple children with similar tumors of the face and neck. Dr. Burkitt launched the initial clinical investigations which later defined Burkitt’s lymphoma. Dr. Burkitt also composed influential literature regarding medical and spiritual themes.
An international health career, unlike most health professions careers, does not have a well defined track. While this may be disconcerting to some, others find the opportunities for creativity and innovation to be exhilarating.
My short answer is, choose the healthcare field or specialty that most interests you. Today there exists a misconception that only primary care is appropriate for low-resource communities. While it is generally true that the greatest needs in such communities are in public health and primary care, there is also an important role for specialists. Physical therapists, dentists, ophthalmologists, midwives, orthopedists, pharmacists, plastic surgeons, and researchers, for example, all have useful talents to offer.
Teaching opportunities – generally better suited for those with more focused qualifications – are constantly expanding and offer influential positions from which to multiply your impact. There also is a real possibility that at some point in your career you will practice in a more affluent community. For all these reasons, learners do better when they pursue fields and specialties in which they are genuinely interested regardless of the setting.
Only those who are genuinely interested in surgery should pursue surgical careers. Many remarkable physicians in international service are surgeons. But there is an important role for a variety of wide variety of specialists and healthcare professionals. What’s more, surgical diseases and corresponding procedures in low-resource communities frequently demand skills significantly different from those learned in a North American-style surgical residency.
Often, the most appropriate surgical training is to be mentored by a colleague on site who already has surgical experience in that particular setting. This was my own experience in Angola, southern Africa, where as a family physician I was mentored for six months in Angola-appropriate surgery by a Canadian surgeon, Steve Foster, on location at Kalukembe Hospital.
The diseases of poverty that plague low-resource nations are almost entirely preventable, and effective interventions usually require community-wide participation. For both of these reasons, anyone interested in serving in a low-resource setting should draw upon the skills of public health. However, such skills need not be advanced to also be effective. Proper application of the most basic principles of prevention, cost-effective intervention, and health leadership can yield enormous results. For these reasons, I do not routinely recommend healthcare learners or professionals pursue an additional degree in public health.
Formal training in public health is most appropriate for those who intend to be educators in the field, and/or to make public health their career emphasis. Personally, I served in Angola following family medicine residency, and did not complete my public health degree until after my first term. Nevertheless, in Angola I led a basic but effective community health promotion project. In retrospect I don’t believe that completing my formal public health training in advance would have significantly altered or improved this project.
In other words, as a person launching your healthcare career to benefit marginalized people, is it better to first choose a particular community to serve, and then select from the available partnering organizations? Or vice versa?
I’ve personally taken both approaches. In the 1980s my main objective was to secure a patient care position in China (a ball park). I next approached universities and NGOs in that nation (ball teams), and in the end partnered with the University of Missouri-Kansas City and Shanghai Charity Hospital where I served over the next two years. By contrast, In the 1990s I formed a close partnership with the IMB (a ball team), who was active in fifty countries, and from their open positions I selected the nation of Angola (a ball park) where I was on site for two years.
Which approach is superior? Each has distinct pros and cons. First selecting your ball park may be best if you already possess a strong attraction to a special community or nation – usually based on prior friendships, language skills, or travel experience. First selecting your ball team may be superior if you’re already attachment to that organization or if they have an appealing record of attributes. Ultimately, either approach is reasonable and can well prepare you for what’s most important: actually playing the game.
Debt related to education, home and consumer purchases is a heavy burden and the most common reason young people tell me they cannot pursue their intentions for serving forgotten people. Consider the following advice:
- Keep all types of loans to an absolute minimum.
- Following graduation, continue to live on a student-type budget despite earning an income. Persist in this lifestyle until all debts are paid and savings are secured.
- Look for opportunities today, wherever you are located and regardless of your financial status, to provide care for marginalized people. They exist in virtually every community.
- Investigate whether a loan repayment program could be connected with your intended service.
- Consider employment with a firm, a government, or a university that stations you in a low-resource community or nation. While working hours will likely be in service to the firm, the income earned may eliminate financial concerns, and free time can be used to serve low-resource people on location.
Professional healthcare training is a long, strenuous process. While in the midst of this experience take full advantage of your opportunities today to grow as a person and to fully live your life. Connect with God, engage with your family and friends, develop meaningful disciplines, and serve people in the context of your community right now.