Work Abroad in International Health Care

Written by  Maia Gedde February 19, 2012

Expert advice for breaking into a rewarding—and travel-friendly—career.

At the age of 20, Colin Beckworth succumbed to his passion for travel—he dropped out of university, where he was studying photography, and set off on a four-year trip around the world. It was somewhere in between the United States and Kenya when he realized that he wanted a career that would allow him to travel. So when he returned home, he trained as a nurse, learnt French and got a diploma in tropical medicine. He now works with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which has so far taken him to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Sudan—and allowed him to realize his dream.

From the latest emergency situations in Libya or Somalia, to long-term development work, health workers are in demand. According to the World Health Organization, Sub-Saharan Africa has 25 per cent of the global burden of disease, but only three per cent of the global health workforce. While a team of health professionals spends hours on a cosmetic procedure in one corner of the world, in another a newborn baby and its mother die because there are no qualified health workers available to attend a complicated birth.

With countless opportunities available, healthcare is a profession that travels well. And for many, working internationally provides the opportunity to fulfill lifelong dreams. “You’re doing what you thought you would when you dreamed of being a doctor,” says Emma Seagal, an emergency doctor who has worked in Guyana and Kenya.
But recruitment is often competitive and if you have little or no experience in international work, breaking into the sector can be difficult. The number of applicants often outweighs demand, especially for short-term placements, paid positions and humanitarian relief work. So how can you make your application stand out?

Skill development is key. Most humanitarian organizations only recruit people who have at least two years post-qualification experience. The specialties required depends on the nature of the work, but nursing, midwifery, surgery, public health, HIV/AIDS, general practice, reproductive health and psychiatry are often in high demand. In addition, if you undertake an introductory course on working in an emergency, or complete a diploma in tropical medicine or nursing, you’ll have an advantage. Gaining experience working in resource-poor countries can also be beneficial. Finally, practical skills rather than just academic qualifications are also important, with teaching, supervision, management and leadership topping the list. Languages will also be big advantage, especially French, Arabic or Spanish.

In the initial stages of a crisis, most organizations will only recruit from a pool of experienced health professionals. “In an emergency situation, your team is very important,” says Ken Barrand, a surgeon who has worked in war zones. “You can’t have a loose cannon on the team or someone out of their depth—it makes everyone else vulnerable.” Teamwork and self-sufficiency are vital and cannot easily be assessed in a recruitment process. But as crises stabilize or conditions improve, organizations may recruit less-experienced candidates.
 
If the idea of working in the chaos of an emergency or war zone doesn’t appeal to you, there are many other possibilities. Neurologist Dr. Ruth Rottbeck, for example, works at a teaching hospital in Rwanda training the next generation of doctors. Short-term placements are also an option. Dr. Phil MacDonald, a consultant anesthetist, volunteers just two weeks a year, allowing him the opportunity to work internationally with minimal disruptions to his job or family life. “It is fascinating to work alongside other doctors, nurses and healthcare workers in their own, often challenging, environment,” MacDonald says. So far, his work with Operation Smile (an international charity that treats children with cleft lips and cleft palates) has taken him to Columbia, the Philippines, the West Bank, Romania, China, Kenya, Ethiopia and India.

Working overseas is not all hardships, of course. “We have a much better life than we did back at home—domestic help and weekends in national parks,” says one doctor, who now lives with his family in Kenya. Valerie Powell, a nurse and midwife working in the Philippines, describes her typical morning: “I wake up to hibiscus and orchids outside my window and travel to work by banka [a small fishing boat].”

Getting an in-depth understanding of the local people and culture can be a very enriching experience. But it’s also a great opportunity for professional development. Jonathan Fitzsimon was a junior doctor when he went to work for a year in Bolivia. As well as running a mobile clinic he also became heavily involved in developing a long-term care plan for patients with diabetes.

“I certainly never expected to be involved in public health planning on a departmental level,” he says. For health care practitioners like Fitzsimon, working internationally provides career opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have access to—and these same opportunities will undoubtedly open doors when they return home.


Maia Gedde is co-author of Working in International Health (Oxford University Press), a guide to long and short-term healthcare opportunities overseas. Working in International Health by Gedde, Edjang and Mandeville was released in September 2011 and is available from online book retailers.

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