So You Want To Be a Global Health Doctor


So you want to be a global health doctor. You went into medicine to help others and now want to give back to less fortunate communities who don’t have the resources for proper healthcare. Let’s debunk the public perception myths and give it to you straight. This is the reality of global health.

Welcome to our next installment of So You Want to Be. In this series, we break down a specific specialty within medicine, in this case, global health, to help you decide if it’s a good fit for you. You can find dozens of other specialties on our So You Want To Be playlist. Comment below to make requests for future specialties.


What Is Global Health & Outreach?

Global health is the field of medicine that helps spread medicine and surgery to developing countries and underserved populations. The need for global health is immense. Currently, 75% of the world’s surgeries are performed in the wealthiest one-third of the world, and the poorest one-third make up only 6% of the world’s surgeries.

Graph poorest third vs healthiest third

In addition, there are five billion people in the world who don’t have access to safe and affordable surgical care. Global health aims to decrease this health gap of inequality by partnering with local physicians and advocates to empower those populations. Through it, the hope is for longer, healthier lives; improved quality of life, better medical systems across the board, and improved economies.

Global health doctors do much more than provide care for their patients. These physicians also have administrative roles, reach out to local leaders, physicians, and other community leaders; and oftentimes are involved in the physical aspect of setting up care. A good portion of their time is spent educating others, such as teaching local physicians techniques and providing medical education to the local population.

However, this learning is not a one way street. There’s also much to learn from their hosts, such as the techniques that local doctors have successfully implemented with their limited resources.

Global health two way learning opportunities

The scope of practice for a global health doctor depends on multiple factors, such as your own expertise, the local infrastructure, and the ability to keep continuity of care after treatment. For example, if you’re practicing medicine in a war-torn country, you’re more likely to deal with trauma. It may be more difficult to treat patients who need follow-up for years, such as transplant patients.

Another limiting factor can be the country’s resources, which, unfortunately, means you might not be able to provide the care that’s “cutting edge” for a patient. Sometimes, it’s a work with what you have situation, which is not what North American-trained doctors are accustomed to.

This brings us to an important method of differentiating global health practice: seasonal vs. embedded vs. one-time.

Seasonal vs. Embedded vs. One-time

Doctors who practice global health on a seasonal or intermittent basis go to these countries during regularly scheduled intervals. Their schedules can vary. Some may prefer traveling in the summer months, and some may prefer the spring. They typically travel once a year or once every six months.

The reason they only go once a year is these projects are usually self-funded and these physicians still have their own practices back home. The upside of working on a seasonal basis is you get to provide continuous care and build trust with the local community. However, the downside is there are long lags between your visits, which can hinder the progress you make.

Embedded global health doctors are those who decide to move to a different country altogether and work locally. They are able to fully integrate into the healthcare system and build more trust with the local community.

However, embedded doctors are limited by the resources available in the community they practice in and can’t supplement as easily. It’s difficult to acquire industrialized technology and medical supplies when you don’t travel back and forth seasonally.

It’s also financially challenging, as you’re working in environments that don’t have the funds to pay near what you’d expect to earn in the US.

One-time global health doctors usually do a mission for a short period of time, such as a few weeks, and then return home. While it may not be as impactful as seasonal or embedded practices, these physicians still get the opportunity to share their expertise with others and learn from local physicians. The downside of one-time global health endeavors is there’s no continuity of care, and if you’re not incredibly careful, you can risk disrupting the local medical system.

Surgical vs. Medical

Another categorization of global health is surgical vs. medical care, and each has its pros and cons.

Surgical global health is procedural, and these surgeries are usually instantly life-changing for patients. You get to immediately heal patients and solve their problems. However, surgical care is expensive, and you must consider additional factors, such as the patient’s baseline health, pre and post op management, the rehabilitation resources, and the patient’s ability to buy medication after the surgery.

There’s also the risk of postoperative complications, which the patient and local physicians may not have adequate resources to deal with after you’ve left.

Medical global health is mostly associated with managing comorbidities through medications and lifestyle changes. These problems are much more common than surgical issues, and the interventions are not as invasive. Counseling patients about certain modifications to their lifestyle can lead to long-lasting change.

However, this is a much longer process, and the patient’s costs can build over time. You might be able to provide the patient with medication to last a few months, but who will pay for these medications on an ongoing basis?

There’s also combined surgical and medical global health, which can provide more services to patients. However, this needs much more coordination between different specialties, which can be complex and difficult to organize.

Misconceptions About Global Health

Let’s clear up some of the misconceptions about global health.

Many may think of global health as a form of colonialism, where doctors believe they’re the good guys who can fix all of a local population’s problems. Global health is more nuanced and should never result in a “west is best” attitude.

Both global health doctors and local physicians have their own set of expertise. For example, a US-trained surgeon may be better at performing certain laparoscopic procedures, whereas local surgeons may be more skilled in traditional open surgical techniques. It’s not a unilateral relationship. Plenty of back-and-forth teaching and collaboration occurs with local teams, which consist of everyone the local population trusts, including doctors, nurses, religious leaders, politicians, and more.

Another important misconception is that the care in these countries is substandard. While their limited resources may affect how patients are diagnosed or which treatments they receive, the level of care the local doctors and nurses provide is still exceptional.


How to Become a Global Health and Outreach Doctor

Global health doctor graphic - doctors working on patient

To become a global health doctor, you must first complete four years of medical school followed by three to seven years of residency, depending on your chosen specialty.

Surgeons typically complete five years of general surgery training, and however many years of a surgical subspecialty you’re passionate about.

If you want to be a medical global health doctor, you will need to complete three years of internal medicine or another primary care specialty, followed by a few years of fellowship training in the field of your choice.

You can become a global health doctor in any field you choose, and you can choose to go into global health at any time. There are always opportunities to enter the field at every level of training.

When pursuing global health, there are a few priorities to keep in mind.

The first is to be as well-trained as possible. Just like back home, people are still entrusting you with their lives, except now you may not have all the tools you’re used to. People trust your knowledge, skill, and intentions- the more expert you are, the better. You also need to build problem solving skills that can help you adapt to any situation. You may not have the equipment you’re used to working with, and this will require outside-the-box thinking.

Learning how to network is also very important. As a global health doctor, you’ll be building relationships with professionals in various fields, such as local physicians, politicians, manufacturers, and more. Building a large network is essential to making your visit impactful. You have to consider long term health outcomes, local health infrastructures and how to build it rather than discredit it, and ways to empower all parties involved.


What You’ll Love About Global Health and Outreach

There’s a lot to love about global health.

To start, it’s a very fulfilling and rewarding career. You get to meet patients from less-fortunate backgrounds and use your training to give back. You often get to give these patients a new lease on life. Usually, their diseases are disabling, and you’ll be able to help them to go back to a life in which they can work and live without pain—something they could not afford to do on their own.

Typically, you get to work in an environment without as much bureaucracy or paperwork, which means you can spend more time practicing pure medicine. In some situations, you’ll also help build the local infrastructure and medical capabilities from the ground up.

Working in global health will help you become a better doctor overall. As a global health doctor, you’re forced to provide the same exceptional care with fewer resources. You learn to think on your feet and pick up new skills that will make you more adaptable, no matter where your career takes you.

You also get to travel and learn about different cultures, countries, and their medical systems. Through these experiences, you’ll learn what you’re truly capable of, enabling you to grow both as a physician and a person.

Lastly, you get to meet incredibly diverse people inside and outside of medicine. You can build strong, long-lasting relationships with people from all over the world.


What You Won’t Love About Global Health and Outreach

graphic map of the world with medical cases spread across

While global health is an exciting specialty, it’s not for everyone.

To start, it’s an expensive career upfront. You’ll either be contributing a considerable amount yourself toward seasonal missions, or you’ll be giving up your potential to earn a US doctor’s salary. While money isn’t everything, cost is an important factor to consider for your future career, especially if you’re graduating with considerable student loan debt.

It can also be scary to leave your comfort zone. You’ll have to adapt to new situations you aren’t comfortable with across all aspects of your work and personal life, including cultural differences, language barriers, and unfamiliar food, just to name a few. In countries that lack adequate resources, the living arrangements might not be as comfortable as you’re used to. You may also have to tolerate traditions or politics you don’t agree with but must respect as a visitor.

Professionally, it can be intimidating to practice medicine with equipment you’re not used to. You’ll need to rely on your clinical skills due to the country’s restrictions on tests and imaging modalities. These are all factors to consider when it comes to diagnosing patients and trying to determine the best way to follow up with them over time.

Lastly, if you’re not incredibly careful, there’s potential to do more harm than good. Providing medical care in another country is a delicate balance. For example, if you don’t follow up with patients, you lose the continuity of care and can disrupt the healthcare system. While this is more of a historical issue, these problems can persist without adequate planning. When you plan a medical mission, you need to consider the sustainability of your impact after you leave or until you come back.


Should You Become a Global Health Doctor?

Is becoming a global health doctor right for you?

If you’re a born idealist and firmly believe in the importance and value of altruism and giving back, then global health may be for you.

You must enjoy practicing medicine or surgery in its purest form and be comfortable problem solving and adapting, as you won’t have all of the resources and tools you’re accustomed to.

If you love collaborating with different teams and different specialties, there’s a lot to love about global health. You’ll work with many different people and serve various different communities, all of which have something to teach you in return.

You’ll be able to practice a specialty you love while learning about different cultures and healthcare systems. If you’re passionate about traveling or have always wanted to immerse yourself in other parts of the world, global health may be the ideal path for you, whether seasonal, embedded, or a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Huge shout out to Dr. Kevin Climaco, Army general surgeon, for helping with the creation of this article and companion YouTube video.

Are you hoping to become a global health doctor? To get into medical school and match into the residency of your choice, you’ll need to crush your class tests and standardized exams. As you look at resources and companies to work with, seek out those who are actual M.D. physicians, not Ph.D. or other types of doctors who didn’t go to medical school.

Look for those who have achieved stellar results themselves, a track record of success with positive ratings from customers, and a systematic approach, so you know you’ll always receive high-quality service. If you decide on Med School Insiders, we’d love to be a part of your journey to becoming a future physician.


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