International Opportunities in the Health Sciences

Written by  Elena Sosa Lerín June 19, 2009
Looking to hit the road with your stethoscope? Here's how to put your degree to work overseas.

There are three billion people worldwide who don't have access to basic healthcare. Think of it this way: that's approximately half of the people in the world. With a global shortage of health workers in a world of increasing medical needs, international volunteers are in high demand. Students, recent graduates or professionals in any health-science field can make a direct impact on people's lives around the world, through a number of placement opportunities.


Why participate in an international health project?

More than 3,000 Canadians participate in international volunteer projects every year, according to Canadian University Services Overseas (CUSO), a Canadian agency that sends volunteers abroad. These projects can make a huge difference in regions where resources are badly lacking. But they also offer enormous benefits for people who take the opportunity to get involved. Studies from the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia show that international medical work creates more competent and confident healthcare workers, who often bring a greater sense of purpose and humanism to their practices once they return home.

With a global shortage of health workers in a world of increasing medical needs, international volunteers in health-sciences are in high demand.

The challenge of working in countries where healthcare facilities and equipment are lacking can encourage creativity, ingenuity and resourcefulness. According to the University of Alberta's International Health Institute, relatively easy access to modern medical technology here in Canada can encourage a certain laziness when it comes to the rigorous examination of clinical problems.

International medicine has also become increasingly important here in Canada, as more travellers venture further afield. Healthcare workers in Canada often face the challenge of diagnosing and treating travellers, as well as new immigrants afflicted with foreign diseases. The difficulties of diagnosis and treatment may be compounded by the fact that some new immigrants have been traumatized by war, displacement into refugee camps or even torture, presenting unique challenges not commonly seen in the rest of Canada's population. Overseas placements will broaden your experience, making you better equipped to deal with health care challenges here at home.


How do I get involved in overseas programmes?

If you're a university student enrolled in a health science program, the golden rule is to ask, ask, ask! Many colleges and universities offer overseas courses or summer internships through specific departments. If you don't see these options advertised in your school or faculty, your professors may know about reputable organizations and programs you can get involved with. And, in some cases, professors themselves run international projects, or know of other professionals looking for volunteers. If you're already a health professional, most likely your professional association offers international programs or has a directory of organizations looking for volunteers.

Keep in mind that while some colleges and universities might not offer internships or placements overseas, they may offer programmes with international content. These programmes can open the door to international employment or volunteer opportunities in organizations dealing with disaster relief or immigrant/refugee health, as well as multilateral agencies such as World Health Organization (WHO), government agencies like the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), or charities such as Oxfam or the Red Cross.

You can also pay an independent organization to arrange a volunteer placement overseas. Several organizations from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia work with local organizations or hospitals in developing countries in order to arrange such placements. Usually, they design year-round programs where the fees you pay cover your transportation, meals and accommodation. You can choose the length of your project and the type of program you want to work on. When dealing with an unfamiliar organization, be sure to ask for references, and find out how long they've been around. You'll also need to know whether there's an agreement between you and the organization, and what type of training you'll be receiving.

A final option is to inquire through a religious group. Whether or not you belong to such an organization, chances are you can get information about international placements, since some religious groups coordinate projects with other non-religious organizations.


What does it take to participate in international health projects?

For most placements, you need to be a health-science student or a professional healthcare provider with a valid license. Many groups or organizations, with the exception of university programs, will require some field experience and travel experience. Some also ask for experience in the developing world, or as a community worker in Canada. Depending on the location of the placement, preference may be given to people who can speak more than one language. Ability in French, Spanish, Portuguese or Mandarin is an asset, but the willingness to learn is more important.

You'll be working outside of your normal sphere, so the ability to interact with people from different backgrounds and cultures is very important. Adaptability is key. You'll be living and working with other team members; you might have to work long hours and be under high stress. Conditions may change rapidly and without warning. Overall, keep an open mind, be flexible, and remember that all good and bad moments in the long run enrich you as an individual and as a professional.


A Last Word

The medical personnel in highest demand are surgeons, paediatricians, family practitioners, nurses, pharmacists, public health educators, optometrists, paramedics, maintenance/repair personnel and laboratory technicians. Yet, with a little research and persistence, people with just about any medical background or medical support skill will be able to find both productive and rewarding projects abroad. Good luck!


Read more:
Resources for getting international experience in the health sciences


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