The field of global health has become increasingly eminent in recent decades, providing healthcare professionals with various opportunities to work abroad in many diverse settings. There are a number of different ways that medical students and junior doctors can get involved in global health, but it does require a bit of thought and forward planning. I have laid out below my seven top tips for those considering pursuing opportunities in global health to help curate experiences that align with your career aspirations, whilst getting the most out of each opportunity.
1. Think carefully about what you want to achieve during your time abroad
There are many different ways in which you can spend your time working abroad. I chose to apply for a research post based internationally as I hope to pursue a career in medicine that incorporates both global health and academia, but there are several other paths that can be taken. There are many charities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) and the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) that recruit doctors for the provision of medical care for migrants and people living in underserved communities with whom you can hone your skills in humanitarian medicine. There are also experiential opportunities that can be undertaken in hospitals in both rural and urban settings in low and middle-income countries in order to gain insight and experience in a medical system different to that of the UK.
2. Decide what length of time you would like to spend away and think carefully about the timing of your trip
One common misconception about working in global health is that not being able to commit to spending long periods of time abroad precludes you from getting involved in any international projects. There are a number of opportunities for people who can only afford to spend shorter periods of time working internationally, including short term expeditions run by charities such as TWOWEEKS and The Vine Trust. For those can afford to spend longer away from the UK, organisations such as the Tropical Health and Education Trust (THET) and MSF offer voluntary placements that last between 6-12 months, allowing doctors to get more closely involved in any projects they are working on.
It is important that you take into account different personal factors when considering both the timing and length of your trip. Relationship and family circumstances, as well as significant life events such as weddings, expected births and the ill health of a loved one may impact how long you choose to go away for and when you view as the most appropriate time to take your trip. It must be noted that some organisations, such as MSF, are less flexible when it comes to the deployment of medical staff and require clinicians to be on standby as and when they are needed; it is therefore important to think carefully about your personal priorities when considering what type of placement would be most suitable for you.
3. Start planning your trip early
There are several different time points at which medical students and junior doctors can consider planning a trip to work internationally. I chose to move away from the UK after completing Core Medical Training as it allowed some flexibility and freedom when organising my trip, but it is also possible to organise an out of programme (OOP) experience or research project with the agreement of your educational supervisor and deanery in order to work abroad whilst in a training programme. Some training programmes have structured out of programme experiences for those with an interest in global health – Health Education England (HEE) offers trainee GPs the chance to apply for a Global Health Fellowship, allowing trainees to work in a rural hospital in either South Africa or Uganda for 12 months after their ST1 year.
Medical students with an interest in global health can research whether their medical school offers international expeditions through a student-led charity or society based at their university. Given the limitations on the scope of work that medical students can undertake abroad, I would strongly advise that any trips organised internationally are with a reputable organisation and that students ensure they have appropriate indemnity cover.
Many international opportunities are voluntary so you may have to consider carefully how you will fund your trip and start saving early. If you are planning to conduct research whilst abroad, you could explore funding opportunities and travel fellowships offered by various medical organisations - many of these are offered only once or twice a year so it is again important that you start looking into these early.
4. Strongly consider completing the Diploma in Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (DTM&H)
The Diploma in Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (DTM&H) is a staple for anyone who would like to pursue a career in global health. There are a number of institutions that offer courses which qualify for the DTM&H exam – your choice of course should therefore depend very much on what you want to get out of the course itself. For those who would like to gain on the ground experience in a low resource setting while completing the diploma, the East Africa DTM&H, run by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), might be a preferred option, whereas for those who are strongly considering a career in humanitarian medicine, the Global Health and Humanitarian Medicine course offered by MSF might be a preferred way of working towards the DTM&H.
5. Also consider a higher degree in Global or International Health
For individuals who are seriously considering a career that is based largely in global health, pursuing a higher degree might also be a good investment. The UK boasts a number of the world’s best degree courses in global health at universities such as LSHTM, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and University of Oxford. For those who would prefer to continue working while pursuing a higher degree, there are also a number of universities such as University of Manchester and Queen Mary’s, University of London (QMUL) that offer global health master’s degree courses either on a part time basis or via distance learning.
6. Join global health societies and networks
There are a number of organisations which are focused towards engaging students and clinicians with an interest in global health, such as Healthcare Professionals for Global Health (HPforGH) and Students for Global Health. Most are free to join and often provide training days and workshops which can help boost your CV, as well as providing careers guidance and further insights into a career in global health.
I would also encourage that you look out for events and conferences organised by the Royal College of the specialty you are interested in pursuing. Attending such events is also an excellent way to meet likeminded people, find out about international opportunities within the specialty, and learn about up and coming topics in the field of global health. Many events are often free for attendees as they are sponsored, so it is important to look out for such events and book a place early to avoid missing out.
7. Keep an eye out for global health opportunities - online, at your university and in your hospital
There are a number of different ways in which you can find opportunities in global health, so it is worth exploring a number of different avenues.
There are a wealth of job and voluntary opportunities available online, many of which can be found on the websites of charities or NGOs, or even on the websites of various Royal Colleges and universities, should you be looking for research opportunities.
It would also be of benefit to speak to your educational supervisor at your university or at your place of work about your interests– many teaching hospitals have existing international partnerships that you can get involved with and your educational supervisor may be able to facilitate your involvement by introducing you to the right people.
I would also encourage those with a budding interest in global health to be bold when enquiring about opportunities that have piqued your interest– you may not think you’re the right fit, but some organisations are willing to bend for someone who they believe has the passion to make the most out of the opportunity they are offering.
The most important piece of advice I can give to anyone interested in pursuing an opportunity in global health is to go for it! There is an incredible amount that can be learned whilst working abroad, as well as lots of enjoyment to be had while immersing yourself in a new culture, so don’t be afraid to take the leap!
Article written by Dr Melanie Etti, Clinical Research Fellow at St George’s, University of London working in Uganda
Below are some fantastic resources Dr Melanie Etti has kindly collated for those who are interested in finding out more:
Charity/NGO-affiliated voluntary opportunities
Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) https://www.msf.org.uk/working-overseas
Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) https://www.sams-usa.net/volunteer/
Tropical Medicine and Education Trust (THET) https://www.thet.org/get-involved/volunteering-with-thet/
The Vine Trust https://www.vinetrust.org/volunteer/medical-expeditions
Global Health opportunities within the Royal Colleges/Health Education England
Health Education England (HEE) Global Health Fellowship in General Practice https://gprecruitment.hee.nhs.uk/Recruitment/GHF
Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) international opportunities https://www.rcgp.org.uk/rcgp-near-you/rcgp-international/international-opportunities.aspx
Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists Global Health opportunities https://www.rcog.org.uk/en/global-network/get-involved-in-rcog-global-health/
Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health Global Child Health programmes https://www.rcpch.ac.uk/work-we-do/global-child-health
Royal College of Psychiatry Volunteering and International psychiatry special interest group (VIPSIG) https://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/members/special-interest-groups/volunteering-and-international
Health Education England Improving Global Health (IGH) through Leadership Development Programme https://www.hee.nhs.uk/our-work/global-engagement/improving-global-health-through-leadership-development-programme-0
Global health networks
Health Professionals for Global Heath (HPforGH) https://www.hpforgh.org.uk/
Students for Global Health https://studentsforglobalhealth.org/
The Global Health Network https://tghn.org/
Diploma in Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (DTM&H) and other higher educational opportunities in global health
NHS-affiliated global health partnerships
Cambridge Global Health Partnerships https://cambridgeghp.org/
King’s Somaliland Partnership (KSP) https://www.kcl.ac.uk/aboutkings/strategy/profiles/Kings-Somaliland-Partnership
King’s Health Partners https://www.kingshealthpartners.org/our-work/global-health/kings-global-health-partnerships
Out of programme information for trainees
BMA advice for taking time out of programme https://archive.bma.org.uk/advice/career/applying-for-training/out-of-programme
GMC guidance for taking time out of programme https://www.gmc-uk.org/education/standards-guidance-and-curricula/guidance/out-of-programme