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4 ways you can take your health degree abroad

Katherine Yates

From AusAid to Médecins Sans Frontières, we give you career tips on how to make an impact on health outcomes throughout the world.

After the hard work of getting through a health related degree—whether it’s in nursing, medicine, medical sciences, or something else entirely—it’s no surprise that many graduates are itching to see the world. Fortunately, a health degree provides the perfect springboard for graduates who wish to combine work and travel, giving them the opportunity to visit foreign countries and make a valuable contribution to their health systems. Indeed, as the UN Sustainable Development Goals emphasise, addressing global issues such as child mortality and the inequitable burden of disease in lesser-developed countries is a primary focus of many health workers.

Of course, it’s impossible to outline all possible international career paths within the scope of this article. However, we hope that, by reading the advice below, you’ll get a sense of the myriad ways that you can use your skills to improve health outcomes across the global community.

Global health

Global health is a multidisciplinary area that stems from the recognition that certain health issues transcend the arbitrary borders of individual nation states or are influenced by transnational phenomena, such as climate change, animal migrations, or the transmission of communicable diseases. According to an article in The Lancet, global health involves the consideration of various factors, including “... a notion (the current state of global health); an objective (a world of healthy people, a condition of global health); or a mix of scholarship, research and practice (with many questions, issues, skills and competencies).”

Hence, global health, as a discipline and an objective, is fundamentally transnational as both an idea and a practice. However, it must also adapt to local contexts, with respect to culture, religion, clothing, politics, gender roles, and so on. With such considerations in mind, we can consider the four primary settings in which you might pursue work abroad.

1. Working abroad in a humanitarian setting

Article 25 of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 states that "everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services." Unfortunately, inadequate access to medical resources and personnel has made this right more of an ideal than a reality in many parts of the world. As a result, many health workers choose to work in settings where they can respond to acute crises (such as wars, famines, and natural disasters) or chronic challenges (such as poverty, displacement, or marginalization) by helping vulnerable populations access vital medical care.

Some of the organisations on the forefront of humanitarian health work include Médecins Sans Frontières, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Medical Emergency Relief International. These organisations recruit various medical workers, including nurses, doctors, opthamologists, midwives, surgeons, and physical therapists, who often use their skills in underserved settings, such as refugee camps, lesser-developed countries, rural or isolated areas, and unstable regions of the world.

Consequently, humanitarian work, while rewarding and important, is something to be carefully considered by all health graduates. It can be stressful, demanding, and confronting. It may also involve significant personal risk and exposure to situations that are traumatic or difficult to manage with the scant available resources. On the plus side, humanitarian health work can be a fulfilling way to save lives, relieve suffering, and promote desirable health outcomes in situations that, without humanitarian support, would likely remain unhealthy and dangerous, or even deteriorate further.

2. Working abroad in a development setting

Health services require funding and are very often impossible to administer unless they’re physically accessible to patients. As a result, the global distribution of health services tilts heavily towards wealthy and urban areas, leaving rural, impoverished, and isolated regions in chronic need of additional support.

In some cases, local health services are available but suffer from inadequate resources or overworked staff. In many others, the gap between rich and poor, or urban and rural, is filled by non-governmental organisations. These range from large-scale bodies such as Medecins Sans Frontieres to smaller NGOs with more specific objectives, such as the Fred Hollows Foundation, which promotes equitable access to ophthalmic care.

There are various ways in which health workers can provide support in development settings. Often their work will be conducted with a view to promoting the independence of existing health services by supporting local staff while filling secondary roles. Health workers in development settings might participate in activities such as distributing resources, educating patients and local staff, contributing administrative expertise, performing advocacy work, and raising funds from abroad.

3. Working abroad in a well-resourced setting

So far, we’ve focused on settings that are probably quite unlike those you’ve experienced during the course of your studies. However, entry into humanitarian or development settings is not a prerequisite for making a contribution to the provision of health services abroad. Graduates can also explore opportunities to work within well-resourced settings, such as affluent and carefully regulated urban hospitals in developing or developed regions of the world.

On the whole, the practice of medicine, nursing, or your own discipline will be familiar in well-resourced settings. However, as noted above, all efforts to provide adequate health outcomes must adapt to local variations of culture and practice.

Australian health workers who travel abroad should be wary of making assumptions that turn out to be incorrect, such as that best-practice treatment protocols remain fixed from country to country. Furthermore, they should be ready to be confront unexpected challenges even in settings that, unlike those addressed by humanitarian or development workers, appear to offer few surprises. For example, Australian graduates in countries like America may be shocked by the prohibitive cost to patients of accessing health care. Or they may find themselves in public hospitals that serve a large volume of patients from vulnerable populations, such as homeless people, indigenous people, sex workers, and the socioeconomically disadvantaged.

4. Working abroad in a non-clinical setting

The fourth way that health graduates can pursue employment or experience abroad is by seeking out opportunities to contribute their skills in non-clinical settings. While it might seem strange to pursue better health outcomes without regularly encountering patients in primary or secondary care settings, research, policy development, epidemiological studies, and other non-clinical projects can have a significant impact on overall global health while informing the practices of health workers on the front line. For example, studying disease vectors in isolated areas can lead to more effective methods for containing epidemics, treating patients, or preventing future disease transmissions.

Many organisations are involved in non-clinical work, which can take place in hospitals, laboratories, research institutions, or the field. Such organisations include UNICEF, AusAid, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Australian Council for International Development.

Conclusion

Naturally, no single article can hope to encompass all the ways in which health graduates—who range from dentists to speech therapists—might make a contribution to the pursuit of global health. However, we hope that reading the above information has helped you to focus your interests and prepared you to undertake further research into the many international opportunities available to health workers from all disciplines.

Non-exhaustive list of international organisations that recruit health workers

Australian Aid – https://australianaid.org/ 

Australian Defence Force – www.defence.gov.au

Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) – www.acfid.asn.au

Australasian Faculty of Public Health medicine – www.afphm.racp.edu.au

Australian Volunteers International – www.australianvolunteers.com

Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development (AYAD) – www.ayad.com.au

Care (Australia) – www.careaustralia.org.au

Caritas – www.caritas.org.au

Child Family Health International – www.cfhi.org

Council for International Development – www.cid.org

Department for International Development – www.dfid.gov.uk

Fred Hollows Foundation – www.hollows.org

Global Focus Aotearoa – www.globalfocus.org.nz

The Global Fund – www.theglobalfund.org

Health Volunteers overseas – www.hvousa.org

International Committee of the Red Cross – www.icrc.org

International Medical Corps – https://internationalmedicalcorps.org/

International Rescue Committee – www.theirc.org

International Rescue Corps – www.intrescue.org

International Service – www.internationalservice.org.uk

Justice Africa – www.justiceafrica.org

Millenium Development Goals monitor – www.mdgmonitor.org

Médecins du monde – Médecins du Monde

Médicins Sans Frontières (Australia) – www.msf.org.au

Mercy Corps – www.mercycorps.org

Operation Smile – www.operationsmile.org

Oxfam (Australia) – www.oxfam.org.au

Pacific Islands Association of NGOs (PIANGO) – www.piango.org

Plan International – www.plan.org.au

Project Hope – www.projecthope.org

RedR – www.redr.org

Response International –www.responseinternational.org.uk

Save the Children – www.savethechildren.org.au

United Nations Volunteers – www.unv.org

United Purpose – https://united-purpose.org/ 

UNHCR (regional office) – www.unhcr.org.au

Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) – www.vso.org.uk

Volunteering for International Development from Australia – www.vidavolunteers.com.au

World Food Program – www.wfp.org

World Vision – www.worldvision.org.au