What You Need to Know About Medical Missions

Can a regular med student make a difference abroad? Yes, you can! Brittany Duncan gives her insight…

Hey Doc! Introduce yourself!
Hi! My name is Brittany Duncan (@pagingdrduncan) and I’m 24 years old. Currently, I am first year medical student at St. George’s School of Medicine in Grenada.

Student Doctor Duncan…

When did your journey in medicine begin?
My journey in medicine began when I was 14 years old. During my summer, I volunteered in the Pediatrics Department at the nearby hospital. There I spent time with children in the waiting room- patients– and I preformed some clerical work. I loved playing with the kids and helping the staff to the best of my abilities because for a time this was where my Pediatrician worked.

Now to the meat of the matter. Could you tell us what medical missions are and how you got started?
Medical mission trips are opportunities to provide medical care and healthcare education to communities in need. On these trips, you shadow local physicians and nurses and receive instruction on how to further help in the clinic setting. At my college, I looked into medical experience opportunities and one of them was Global Brigades.

Global Brigades is a nonprofit health and sustainable development organization that works with volunteers from North American and European universities, as well as local staff in Central America and West Africa to partner with communities to reduce inequalities. They have a number of programs including public health, medical, engineering, business and more to choose from. The chapters at my college were Medical, Public Health, and Business. Our Medical and Public Health chapter traveled to Honduras for 9 days to help provide medical care, health education and help build infrastructure to support access to clean water.

Why are medical projects abroad important in forming great doctors?
They’re important for many reasons. First and foremost to gain experience in cultures that are not your own. Learning other cultural norms is important when considering patient treatment plans. Second, learning about different healthcare systems with regards to patient access to surgeries, medications, specialists and more. This allows you to be able to compare and contrast the healthcare access and system in the United States to other countries. Having different examples to draw upon is helpful for you to determine your role as an American physician and what changes you want to push for (if any) in your own medical practice/care. Third, the experience of living abroad and fending for yourself is always helpful. To me it was a great tool in helping shape how I want to interact with the world.

What is your favorite memory of all of your project travels? Observing surgery in during the Atlantis project. I got to experience neurosurgery, thoracic and vascular surgery. I witnessed a vein bypass in the leg and a partial foot amputation. That was the first time I got to observe surgery and I was amazed by the precision of the tools and the surgeons. Another surgery I was amazed by was chest wall reconstruction using titanium rib like plates. The surgeons had to bend them in place and be very careful not to puncture the lungs.

How do I get started? I would start with University/Campus organizations. It’s easier to travel abroad with a group of people you know and usually its more structured for college students. For example, I traveled with the Global Brigade chapter at Brandeis University. This was a 9 day trip to Honduras. There I had some patient interaction but I mostly observed. I had to learn medical Spanish.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself when thinking of choosing a abroad clinical experience:
1. Where does this project/mission take place?🌎
2. Do I speak the language?🗣
3. Am I interacting with patients or mainly observing?👩🏾‍⚕️
4. How long is the program?⌚
5. How much does it cost?💲
6. Are there scholarships/grants available?🎓
7. What does the program provide? 🛌🏾
8. Does the program provide any meals?🍔
9. Does the program provide transportation to and from the destination?🚌

I’m just a pre-med student with little to no clinical skills. How helpful would I be on a project like this? I think an abroad trip is useful to get out of your comfort zone. I don’t think it’s necessary to have clinical skills prior to a project abroad. Many people on and facilitating the trips are very helpful in guiding and teaching you anything you need to know.

Views from the field

How many countries have you visited and which one was your favorite to volunteer in? I have visited 5 countries: Honduras, Denmark, Estonia, Sweden and Uruguay. My favorite was Uruguay! The Atlantis Project was very immersive and provided opportunity to volunteer and observe in many different parts of the hospital and outside of the hospital. I shadowed physicians and nurses in Gastroenterology, Hematology, Vascular, Thoracic and Neurosurgery. I volunteered in a Military Cancer Research Lab as well.

If I’m cash strapped and can’t afford overseas projects, what are some other ways that I can serve others and gain clinical experience? Volunteering in hospitals (sometimes this can be very competitive), small clinics- either a private or associated with hospitals, working as a medical scribe, and/or becoming a medical assistant.

Anything else you’d like to add about mission projects? There is a stigma about mission projects that may be brought up while you’re compiling your medical school application. Medical mission trips can often be done for the wrong reason, such as meeting the need of the volunteer and not being truly helpful to the communities in need. When looking into different missions/projects abroad be sure to ask yourself if you are doing them for the right reasons and if the outline and mission of the trip actually help the communities. I also asked the coordinators during my interviews for each project what made their project’s impact a positive one.

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Thanks a mill to Student Doctor Brittany! Check her out on her Instagram page @pagingdrduncan to follow her journey to that MD!

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