From Syria and the Sudan to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and beyond, political instability, crumbling or vacuous medical infrastructure, and the refugee crises that follow result in a foreseeable amount of unmet medical need. Many aspiring physicians express that they want to "help people" and "work overseas," but when pressed, they often can't articulate where, whom, and how they intend to help.
Physicians, medical students, and even premedical students are able to make a significant impact on people's lives. In an increasingly interconnected world, which is only getting "flatter," having an understanding of the scope of medical needs worldwide, the human impact of these political crises, and how you can help will empower you to be a more empathetic physician and have a greater impact.
[Learn how medical schools are seeking empathetic students.]
Physicians from throughout the world are working with literally thousands of nongovernmental (NGO) and government-supported international aid organizations to deliver care to those who need it most. One particularly well-known organization is Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)—also known as Doctors without Borders—which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999 for its international aid work. The MSF website provides a wealth of information on humanitarian crises from the field, as well as its internship program.
Contrary to what some may think, the people who work for MSF and similar organizations aren't only internists or infectious disease specialists. Surgeons, ophthalmologists, OB-GYNs, and other specialists are desperately needed. The American Medical Association (AMA) has a physician volunteer section that helps to organize and delineate the options as well.
At many medical schools throughout the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean, medical students have an abundance of international service opportunities available to them, particularly in the latter part of their third and final years of medical school. These opportunities are especially valuable at this stage of medical training, because they help reinforce the importance of taking a comprehensive patient history, help hone physical examination skills, and illustrate how medicine is practiced in a resource-poor environment.
While conducting your medical school search, inquiring about international clinical opportunities is recommended, and discussing these opportunities during medical school interviews can help highlight your interest in the school and your commitment to patient care.
Premedical students also have myriad opportunities available to them. Naturally, premedical students will not have the independent or supervised clinical autonomy of a physician or medical student, respectively. However, they can still make an impact, learn a tremendous amount, and do meaningful work that can improve their medical school application.
To identify opportunities, reach out to the premedical society at your school to get started. The International Medical Volunteers Association provides a comprehensive and no-frills background on how to identify organizations. It also has a student's corner with tips for students, as well as a link to the global health Supercourse, a repository of lectures on global health and prevention. Additional opportunities can be found through idealist.org, and potentially through the religious organization of your choosing.
It is easy to get caught up in the competitive and arduous nature of the medical school admissions process. When the stress builds, it is important to look beyond the numbers and reflect on why you want to become a physician. There is an unfathomable amount of medical need in the United States and throughout the world, and there is space for both the aspiring premed and the senior attending physician to help.
Mark D'Agostino, M.D., M.S., M.Sc. is a Brigade Surgeon in the United States Army. As a Marshall Scholar, he earned a master's degree in Biochemistry at the University of Nottingham Medical School, and a second master's in Health Policy, Planning and Financing from the London School of Economics (LSE) and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). After graduating from Brown Medical School, he trained at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.