Educating tomorrow’s global health leaders

05One of the six key priority areas identified by The United Nations Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health is to develop ‘stronger health systems with sufficient skilled health workers at their core’. [1] Such skilled workers   require   an   awareness   of   global health issues in order to meet the challenges inherent in future practice in the modern globalised world. Early exposure to global health experiences as a medical student is important in promoting future global health leadership, and can also help to optimise practice in the local community.

There has been a burgeoning interest in global health amongst medical students. [2] Today’s medical students are increasingly aware of global health issues and feel a strong sense of responsibility towards the global community. This can be attributed to numerous factors, including  the  media,  which  has  forged  a sense of an interconnected global society, and the rise of challenges that do not recognise geographic borders, such as climate change and the spread of infectious diseases. [3-5] This  has  emphasised  that  global  issues  are far less remote than they might have once seemed.

For medical students to make meaningful change in the global health arena, they require skills that may extend beyond those taught by traditional medical curricula. The attributes of a global health leader, according to Rowson et al., include being ‘globalised’, ‘humanised’, and ‘policy-orientated’. [6] Increasing  globalisation  demands  that doctors are culturally sensitive and address determinants of health at global as well as local levels.   Overseas medical experiences can encourage ‘globalised’ thinking, for example  by  encouraging  flexibility  as students witness alternative models of care guided by different cultural values. [7] One of the most important driving forces behind students’ commitment towards contributing to  developing  world  health  is  altruism, which underlies practice as a ‘humanitarian’ doctor. Humanitarianism makes participation in  global  health  rewarding  for  many,  and can foster a lifelong commitment to global health action and leadership. Another less well-recognised  attribute  of  global  leaders is the understanding that doctors can have a   substantial   impact   not   only   through treating individual patients, but also through policy-making  at  a  population  level.  A  key way Australian health professionals have helped in developing countries has been by advocating in partnership with local leaders to effect change.  For example, the TraumAid International organisation established by Dr Jennifer Dawson equips local leaders to run programs in the community on how to deal with trauma experiences. [8] Closer to home, there have been striking examples of doctors utilising their political voices to protect vulnerable populations, such as through advocacy for the rights of asylum seekers. [5,9]

The skills learnt overseas benefit students by not only encouraging them to be global health leaders, but also to be effective doctors back home. Students have reported enhanced clinical and communication skills, lateral thinking, personal awareness and enthusiasm towards training following overseas elective experiences. [10] They are also more likely to seek to serve underprivileged populations, including   in   rural   and   remote   Australia. [11]   Experience   in   low-resource   settings can also help graduates to be more aware of the impact of their clinical decisions. For example, the principles of the rational use of investigations learnt in developing countries can be transferred back to local settings to promote cost-effective practice by minimising the over-ordering of tests in favour of astute clinical assessment. [10]

A number of initiatives have arisen to meet the growing interest of Australian medical students in global health. Largely student- driven,   these   include   the   annual   AMSA Global Health Conference and the formation of university global health interest groups which operate within the AMSA Global Health Network. [4] Being part of a global health group encourages students to develop an early passion in global health and network with like-minded individuals to share ideas. [2] Global health groups have also taken leadership  in  piloting  education  programs that raise awareness of current global health issues. Encouragingly, these programs attract not only medical students, but also students completing a variety of courses at university and even the general public, as has been our experience with the global course facilitated by   the  Medical   Students’  Aid   Project  at UNSW. This underscores a key reality in global health, that solutions in the developing world often require partnership between medical professionals and those outside the medical sphere.

A popular way in which students gain practical experience in global health is through arranging electives in developing countries. The benefits of such electives are numerous. It is important to note, however, that electives can  be  associated  with  potential  harm  to both the student and the local community. Risks include lack of supervision which can lead   to   students   assuming   roles   beyond their capabilities, which can compromise patient care. [7] Trainees may also experience physical harm due to unstable environments or psychological impacts which can be exacerbated  by  limited  support  networks. [7] The potential harm to local communities can include disruption to local practices and disincentives  to  governments  to  invest  in local workforces. It is well-recognised that initiating long-term, continuous partnerships with communities are more effective in optimising health outcomes compared with short-term, “bandaid-approach” medical missions. [3] Further strategies to reduce risks and  promote  ethical  practice are  discussed in guidelines, such as ‘A Guide to Working Abroad for Australian Medical Students and Junior Doctors’ by AMSA and the AMA. [12,13] These   resources   can   encourage   students to be mindful of their potential impact on communities.

It is clear that an awareness of global health is vital for preparing future doctors to meet diverse future health challenges. Although numerous   student-run   opportunities   exist for students to engage in global health, there has been a call to also integrate global health into the formal university curricula, with over 90% of students believing that global health should  be  a  component  of  medical  school programs.   [7,11]   This   could   complement overseas  medical  experiences  by  providing a conceptual framework of the global health environment,  which  can  be  reinforced  by practical experience.

In our ever-changing environment, it is vital that students and junior health professionals are  offered  all  of  the  opportunities  they require    to    lead    meaningful    change    in tomorrow’s world.



Conflict of interest

None declared.


N Jain:

S Jain:


[1] Ki-Moon B. Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health. The Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health, 2010.

[2] Leow J, Cheng D, Burkle Jr F. Doctors and global health: tips for medical students and junior doctors. Med J Aust. 2011;195(11):657-9.

[3] Panosian C, Coates TJ. The New Medical “Missionaries” —   Grooming   the   Next   Generation   of   Global   Health Workers. N Engl J Med 2006;354(17):1771-3.

[4]  Fox  G,  Thompson  J,  Bourke V,  Moloney  G.  Medical students, medical schools and international health. Med J Aust. 2007;187(9):536-9.

[5] Australian Medical Association. Speech to AMSA Global Health  Conference  2014  ‘Changing  Dynamics  in  Global Health Issues, priorities, and leadership’ by AMA President A/Prof Brian Owler’ [Internet]. Canberra ACT: Australian Medical Association; 2014 Sep 8 [cited 2015 30 June]. conference-2014].

[6] Rowson M, Smith A, Hughes R, Johnson O, Maini A, Martin S, et al. The evolution of global health teaching in   undergraduate   medical   curricula.   Global   Health. 2012;8:35-.

[7] Mitchell R, Jamieson J, Parker J, Hersch F, Wainer Z, Moodie A. Global health training and postgraduate medical education in  Australia:  the  case  for  greater  integration. Med J Aust. 2013;198(6):316-9.

[8] TraumAid International. TraumAid International 2015 [cited 2015 23 June]. Available from:

[9] Talley N, Zwi K. Let the children go — advocacy for children in detention by the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. Med J Aust. 2015;202(11):555-7.

[10]  Bateman  C,  Baker  T,  Hoornenborg  E,  Ericsson  U. Bringing   global   issues   to   medical   teaching.   Lancet. 2001;358(9292):1539-42.

[11] Drain PK, Primack A, Hunt DD, Fawzi WW, Holmes KK, Gardner P. Global health in medical education: a call for more training and opportunities. Academic medicine : journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges. 2007;82(3):226-30.

[12]   Parker   J,   Mitchell   R,   Mansfield   S,   Jamieson   J, Humphreys D, Hersch F, et al. A Guide to Working Abroad for Australian Medical Students and Junior Doctors. Med J Aust. 2011;194(12):1-95.

[13]  Pinto  AD,  Upshur  REG.  Global  health  ethics  for students. Dev World Bioeth. 2009;9(1):1-10.