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Affecting Global Change: The Impact of International Health Education

the impact of international health education

For most students, college represents an opportunity to learn something that you can use for the rest of your life, possibly within a career that allows you to give back to the world.

But why wait?

For medical students at the University of Utah, the opportunity exists to not only make a difference after graduation, but to have an impact during their schooling.

“Many medical students come to the University of Utah with a desire to understand, appreciate and study health and healthcare outside of our borders,” said Ty Dickerson, Assistant Dean of Global Health Education and Associate Professor of Pediatrics at University of Utah School of Medicine. “To that end, we offer several didactic courses right here on our Utah campus for medical, graduate, and undergraduate students.”

These courses include a number of classes geared specifically toward better understanding of global health perspectives as well as preparing students for active fieldwork across the world. They provide everything from learning basic safety practices for clinical work in the field, to learning how to cope with limited resources in remote locations.

“Learning Abroad has been a fantastic resource for U of U medical students, and the Division of Public Health, through learning abroad, offers some very strong learning abroad programs that I encourage students to engage in,” Dickerson said. “And we can tailor our international electives to cater to our medical students with many senior medical students engage in active research and education or clinical training in a wide variety of international settings.”

The Division of Public Health in cooperation with the Learning Abroad program offers study and research opportunities in Ghana, Armenia, India and Peru, and includes offerings such as traditional clinical work and pharmacy study.

The benefit to students interested in public health are numerous according to Dickerson, and are not limited to the medical research work done on site.

“Because 95% of the world’s population lives outside of U.S. borders I think that in order to call oneself a complete physician or a public health expert, one needs to have a basic understanding of the health and well-being of the population outside of the U.S. as well as different health systems,” Dickerson said. “A U.S. physician benefits from an understanding of cultures outside of our own, and one of the best ways to appreciate cultures is to travel there and to live among people in different countries.”

Participating in one of these courses can often help to mold the future careers of the students who choose to participate in them. Dickerson, who has travelled with students on these Learning Abroad courses on multiple occasions, said the Learning Abroad programs offered are designed to get students actively engaged in their field of interest, as well as immersing them in a completely foreign environment. The result he said, is almost always perspective-altering.

“Students typically find these trips to be transformative in my experience,” Dickerson said. “While many of them have travelled broadly before, the Learning Abroad programs are unique in that working with our local partners, we get to go to what are often very remote and rural communities where our students get to meet community members, get inside their homes and hear about their health issues, their struggles and their challenges as well as their successes. This represents an opportunity that is very unique and something one cannot get as a traditional traveler.”

The resulting impact extends beyond the improved public health and wellbeing of the communities where these trips take place.  While there is no conclusive evidence that medical professionals who have experience with international public health projects bring back a sense of inclusiveness within their practices, Dickerson said he’s seen, if not necessarily measurable, a noticeable correlation.

“We know that resident doctors that do international rotations are more likely to practice in remote and rural regions of the United States, and are more likely to work with underserved populations and the uninsured,” Dickerson said. “Whether the international experience influences these people to address this unmet need in our own population is uncertain, but these opportunities, I believe, help re-affirm some physicians commitment to rural, underserved and international health.”

One of the reasons Dickerson believes these programs are so impactful is due to the way they inherently encourage transnational collaboration. Every student who participates in a Learning Abroad opportunity is grouped with local student peers from universities within their host country. Additionally, University of Utah faculty like Dickerson, are often available on site to aid students.

“Of course, if you are one of these trips for three weeks in Ghana, you get to know these students very well, you spend a lot of time together. There’s a lot of travel time, time in the field, breakfast, lunch and dinner, that sort of thing, so we really get a lot of contact with the students,” Dickerson said. “It is our opportunity to help them think about their future careers and also to counsel them.”

Many of the students who come back decide to pursue a master’s degree in public health as a result of their experiences in the field according to Dickerson. This is something that brings a direct impact not only to the university’s fields of research, but to Utah as well.

Looking forward, Dickerson has high hopes not only for the future of Learning Abroad with the Division of Public Health, but for the entirety of the university.

“What I would like to see here at the University of Utah, including these Learning Abroad programs, is that we diversify the disciplines that the students participating represent,” Dickerson said. “I think there is a role for engineering, law, business, social work, and other social sciences within all of our Learning Abroad programs. Indeed, I think that all of those disciplines are essential for ensuring human wellbeing and good health. I’m very proud of the University of Utah’s efforts to internationalize and look forward to the future where different disciplines across campus collaborate to affect change globally.”

For more information on the University of Utah Public Health department: