New Study Challenges Assumptions About Impact of Students During Global Health Experiences

In a new study found in the journal Medical Education, researchers analyze impact of short-term global health experiences by interviewing local health officials and hosts; discover results that challenge old assumptions.

​​Students from colleges and graduate programs in the US are increasingly taking part in international experiences, particularly in poorer countries (collectively called the “Global South”). Often these programs place students under the pretenses students improve the health of community members.  Little research has been done to support this assumption and evaluate if students do impact health.  In addition, many critics of such programs point out that students have limited expertise and a different frame of reference. This, they purport, potentially limits their efficacy to make major inroads in health status of the host community, or even worse is potentially dangerous for patients.  As Global Health education thought leader and Executive Director of Child Family Health International (CFHI), Dr. Jessica Evert, comments, “when we land in a community very different from our own and we do not yet have expertise in professional skills or teaching, we risk patting ourselves on the back for an impact we aren’t having or having very short-term impacts that are not sustained.”

Tiffany Kung, a Stanford University student researcher, evaluates these assumptions and characterizes the impacts that students from the US and other wealthy countries have on communities in the Global South.  The study was conducted in collaboration with the non-profit Child Family Health International, a provider of community-based Global Health Education Programs for trainees and institutions. Published in the journal Medical Education, Kung’s work reveals community members do not remark on direct impacts to the health of patients or the population as a result of receiving international students on short-term global health experiences. However, hosts noted other positive impacts.

Local healthcare workers reported a boost in prestige for themselves and the hospitals or clinics that host students.  In addition, host community members remarked that students led to improved English proficiency for those in contact with the students, as well as increasing the sense of global connectedness.  As one Medical Director in India reflected, “As a global citizen of the world, if I am able to educate a student from any other nation, and he feels a little softer about places that are not as economically well off, then from that perspective of course it is beneficial, because we are benefiting some students living in affluent nations to have a balanced view of life.”

Our study showed that while local health officials received a boost in professional networking and prestige, the international preceptors perceived a lack of equity in professional development opportunities when compared to US-based staff.

Tiffany Kung, Stanford 3rd Year Medical Student

The study also resulted in constructive feedback for the partnerships that provide the scaffolding for the programs.  Host community partners cited a desire for additional professional development and promotion opportunities, as well as increased thoughtfulness about the use of funds for US-based staff to conduct site visits to partner communities.  Kung explains, “Our study showed that while local health officials received a boost in professional networking and prestige, the international preceptors perceived a lack of equity in professional development opportunities when compared to US-based staff.”

The findings of this new research have impacts for the global health education sector.  It provides some evidence of limited or non-existent impacts of students from the US and other high-income countries on health in poorer settings.  “Logically this makes sense given the limited expertise of students and the great amount of time they require to be taught and supervised,” remarks Dr. Evert. Rather, students serve to increase the global connectedness of communities, increase English proficiency of community members, and increase prestige for organizations and healthcare workers.  Secondly, the research encourages organizations based in the Global North to be mindful of inequities between US staff and international partners, and try to create promotional structures and additional opportunities for partners abroad.  Dr. Evert takes the positive and constructive feedback with enthusiasm, “we need to know our partners’ perceptions, and getting this feedback helps us engage in more successful, enduring relationships that are founded on mutual respect.”

About Child Family Health International

Child Family Health International (CFHI) provides community-based Global Health Education Programs for students and institutions. Our unique model fosters reciprocal partnerships and empowerment in local communities, transforming perspectives about self, healing and global citizenship.

Source: Child Family Health International

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