Student medical missions abroad typically serve two key purposes: to provide aid to patients and populations in need, and to expose students to the health care systems (or relative lack thereof) of other countries. Many missions pursue these goals by bringing students to underserved areas ravaged by poverty, poor living conditions, and minimal access to even basic medical care.
As four second-year students discovered over the summer, however, the service and education objectives of a global health experience can be achieved even within an industrialized nation widely recognized as having one of the world’s finest health care systems.
Midway through their first year of medical school, Erin Forster, Erika Manis, Amy Manzo, and Kaitlyn Renaldi learned about a longstanding bilateral agreement between Wright State and Umeå University in Umeå, Sweden. In the 11 years since the establishment of the agreement, they were surprised to discover, many students from Umeå had come to Dayton, but no Wright State students had crossed the Atlantic to study in Sweden.
The medical students, all members of the Global Health Initiative student organization, were already hoping to participate in a summer service trip abroad, so it was an easy leap to set up plans for three weeks of volunteer work at Umeå’s Faculty of Medicine.
Hands-on in the hospital
The students arrived in Umeå, which is the largest city in northern Sweden and one of the country’s fastest-growing areas, in June and spent their first two weeks at the Norrlands University Hospital. During the first week, they went on rounds in the orthopedic ward, assisted in the physical therapy clinic, and often scrubbed in on surgeries, including ACL repairs, bone biopsies, tumor removal, and leg amputations.
“I helped with an eight-hour surgery, a knee replacement,” Renaldi said. “It was really interesting, and I was standing right there.”
Scrubbing in on a hip replacement, Forster said, made a lasting impression.
“It was a one-of-a-kind experience,” she said. I was right in the front seat for this amazing surgery.”
During their second week at the hospital, the students saw patients in the clinic during the morning and worked in the emergency room each afternoon, honing their patient interview and physical examination skills under the guidance of orthopedic surgery interns.
Reaching out to those most in need
For their third and final week in Umeå, the students left the hospital and volunteered at Öppen Gemenskap (“Open Community”), a community-based organization serving at-risk children and adults, including many who are homeless, mentally ill, or struggling with substance abuse. The organization provides a variety of services for its clients, including outpatient care and rehabilitation, job counseling, job training, meals, and youth programs.
“The first few days, I was really out of my comfort zone,” Manzo said, “but it ended up being a good experience.”
“So many times when people walk by the homeless,” she added, “they don’t acknowledge them. They don’t look at them. They just weren’t even visible members of society. You could tell that our talking with them, smiling at them, interacting with them, really made a big difference in their lives.”
A more informed perspective on global health care
In addition to being moved and challenged by individual patients and procedures, the students also benefitted a great deal from exposure to a different model of health care.
“It was really interesting,” Manzo said, “because we got a firsthand experience of what it’s like to work in a socialized health care system. I feel a lot more informed about the health care discussion because of that.”
“I think the answer to fixing health care in America is more complicated than just universal health care,” said Manis, an opinion she didn’t necessarily hold before the trip. “People there like their health care, but it’s not perfect. They have complaints about their health care system too, just like we have here.”
“I think it’s helpful to visit other countries that are doing something right—or doing part of it right,” she added, “to learn from them, and then apply it to health care here.” VS