Let’s talk about medical mission trips abroad as a pre-med student. Sure, it seems glamorous to have the opportunity to go on a medical mission trip to some developing or middle-income country. It looks great on a resume and will look even better on your Instagram. But what are you really doing and who is it really affecting? The truth is there are many pros and cons with exposure to global medicine as a pre-med and I think that we need to be honest with ourselves about what these outreach trips truly accomplish at this stage in one’s education. This honesty will not only change the perspective of your participation but may also be more beneficial to the communities that are impacted.
When I first decided to go on a medical mission trip as a pre-med, I not only wanted to get a first-hand experience of medicine outside of my country, but I also wanted to learn about the different culture and, honestly, it sounded like a great excuse to convince my parents to let me travel abroad. As a young student at that time, I went into this experience with few expectations, just the desire to make this trip meaningful, help others in any way I could, and, of course, have a great time. Turned out, not only did I have a great time, but I think this experience helped shape my future path.
In between my junior and senior year of undergraduate studies, I participated in a medical mission trip to Jamaica organized by my university’s pre-health professions office. I traveled with a group of other pre-med students, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, to the area of St. Ann’s around Montego Bay to get our mission trip on. We were in for a week full of immersion learning and exploring.
The first three days, we visited medical facilities to shadow and support onsite staff. On our first day, we went to a small community clinic where we were able to sit in on a Q&A for expectant mothers and record their vital signs. This part of our trip was hands-on and was a great experience to speak with the women and contribute to their care. At that time though, I felt out of place and inadequate and realized quickly that I knew nothing. I knew then that even the little expectations of the care I would be able to provide on this trip were about to be altered.
The next day, we went to a larger facility that consisted of an onsite pharmacy, a general medical clinic, and a dentistry unit. There, we were able to shadow the physicians and learn about how public healthcare is delivered in Jamaica. My altered expectations were developed more on this day, where my role shifted from mission-oriented to awareness.
Our third and final day of clinic, we went to a local public hospital. Here we were able to shadow staff the entire day. I started in triage, where I helped take vitals and administer blood glucose testing. This was particularly interesting because one of our patients that day had blood sugar so high that you would expect them to be unconscious, but there the patient was, sitting fine, right in front of me. This was one indicator of some of the chronic illnesses that the people of Jamaica are commonly affected by. My next stop within the hospital was the urgent care ward, where I shadowed a doctor suturing a man’s scalp. This encounter was one of the most inspiring for me. The story was that a homeless man had been hit in the head with a machete. The doctor that sutured him was coarse with the patient and seemed uninterested in how the man’s head came in contact with a machete, like this was an all-too-common occurrence. During this encounter, something that was initially alarming to me was the physician was considering using tap water to clean the wound until he realized the bone was exposed and broken. The physician explained that they don’t use saline to clean wounds that do not break the bone but rather tap water. At this point in the encounter I was stunned, sad, and selected my next words with caution. This was yet another situation that highlighted some of the differences in the local healthcare system and the continued challenges that a lack of resources presents. Later that day, we were able to go into a surgical unit and observe part of an ongoing surgery. This was particularly intriguing since I had not had an experience within a surgical suite before. I was observing a thyroidectomy in a woman with an outwardly evident goiter so large that the anesthesiologist was having a hard time doing his portion of the surgery. This made me wonder what things about the system, accessibility, and the patient’s life interfered with her ability to get care earlier. I never learned the answers to my thoughts but I now incorporate similar thinking in similar situations I have encountered since then.
The rest of our trip was composed of a cultural day where we zip-lined and went rafting, as well as a community outreach day where we worked with a local primary school on a Mother’s Day project. All together I had a great time on my mission trip contingent on the fact that I didn’t go with a mindset to “save” and left with a deep appreciation for the knowledge I acquired. I learned about the challenges in Jamaica’s healthcare system. I learned that many of the chronic diseases that Jamaican’s suffer from are similar to those in the US. I learned that lack of resources does not mean lack of care. I learned that the community was grateful for the services offered, no matter how seemingly inadequate in comparison to those in which I am accustomed. I learned that the word mission in mission trip is about me, you, the participant and our quest for understanding and awareness.
So, given the opportunity should you participate in a pre-med medical mission trip? In my opinion: YES – but only if your expectations are realistic.
If you’re going on an outreach trip to medically care for others as a pre-med student, you are going with the wrong intentions. If your intent is to learn all that you can, be humble, and immerse yourself in a foreign healthcare setting, then I say do it!
One of the most significant things that I learned from my experience is this: even if a healthcare system is broken, if there are subsets of a country’s population that are medically at risk, or whether their resources are not what you are accustomed to, your role is not to criticize, help, or save them. Your role is to learn. Experiencing global health is incredibly useful for a student who is willing to learn, to become a global citizen.
My advice, before you go on your own outreach or mission trip, is to first make a list of your expectations, goals, and any questions that you might want answered. Then, I strongly encourage you to find out if the trip you are planning on joining will be able to meet the expectations you have made and achieve the goals you have set.
Lastly, always have the mindset that your skills are finite but your potential to learn is endless.
Have you ever been on a medical mission trip? What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below.