Travel in Med School: How Your Studies Shape Your Perspective

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Learn about how being a med student influences the experiences you’ll have when you travel

Regardless of your profession, international travel provides the opportunity to make you a more well-rounded person. For med students, that opportunity can be even larger, given your changing perspective on healthcare, and your role within it. 

On med school or residency applications, travel experiences can highlight your curiosity about the world, desire to connect with other people across cultures, and willingness to step outside of your comfort zone

Plus, having the diverse range of experiences that travel brings allows you to get more out of life, which, in turn, can help make you a happier, more fulfilled person.

Whether you’re considering a pre-med gap year or a shorter stint during med school, consider how travel may help shape your understanding of the world—and your field—in positive ways.

At the same time, as a med student, you’ll bring a distinct perspective that influences how you travel and what you focus on while abroad. Here are a few key aspects of travel for med students that tend to guide their experiences. 

Heightened awareness of potential dangers.

As a medical student, you’ll probably have a stronger awareness of potential hazards than the average traveler, from diseases to the possibility of spraining an ankle. You’re far less likely to forget your first aid kit, get a recommended vaccination, purchase travel health insurance, or check the latest travel advisories. You might continuously find yourself imagining how you would respond to a worst-case scenario. What if you came down with a severe stomach bug in a remote village? Perhaps even more importantly, what would you do if you encountered someone in the street who urgently needed care?

While you should definitely try to distract yourself from obsessive worrying, running a few hypothetical scenarios through your mind can help you decide how to react in such situations – if they come up.

The types of experiences they seek.

Med students who travel often seek out dramatically different experiences than mainstream tourists. They may have the chance to connect with underserved populations, talking one-on-one with locals about the health challenges they’re facing. As a result, while traveling, you may gain a glimpse into the lives of individuals that gives you a depth of understanding that most travelers don’t get. 

You might also wish to use your international travel time to gain proficiency in another language; particularly one that many of your patients will probably be speaking. Even having a lower level of proficiency in a second language can help doctors establish a bond of trust with patients—either abroad or back home—showing that they’re making an effort to connect with patients in their first language. 

The desire for cross-cultural learning.

Since many future physicians will eventually work with diverse populations in their home country, they’re highly attuned to the chance to learn how to relate better to people from different backgrounds. 

Writing in 2016, Patricia Chaney, a UCLA & Tulane med student, asserted her internship with USAID, which took her to Zambia and South Africa, helped her to become a more culturally responsive physician. Even when med students aren’t directly engaged in healthcare work during their travel, you’ll be building your knowledge and self-awareness in ways that can greatly improve their delivery of care.

Open-mindedness is the key: aspiring doctors who travel abroad should strive to learn from local physicians and clinical staff who have a stronger understanding of how to work with the local population. 

Deeper insights into new possibilities for healthcare.

Travel can open medical students’ eyes not only to disparities that exist in healthcare around the world, but also to what other countries get right about it. As they learn about another culture through tourism, they may tune in to things their own country could learn from in terms of medical or preventative care, and why certain diseases or conditions are more prevalent in some areas than others. 

When Canadian med student Dalia Karol was traveling in Greece, she connected with a med student from Spain, and compared notes about how healthcare payments work in their respective countries. Discussing alternative types of payment systems opened up new possibilities to advocate for in their home countries.

As you reflect on how your position as a med student shapes your travel experiences, you’ll become more self-aware and, as a result, you’ll get more from the experience. Continue to think critically about how you relate to the world outside of your home country, and you’ll come back with a wealth of knowledge and experiences that will continue propelling your growth for years to come.

“Taking the time to travel has made me a better medical student,”  Karol, who graduated this year, wrote in 2018

“Indeed, travelling during medical school is not a waste of time, but an incredibly valuable investment to supplement one’s clinical and research experiences.”

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