Ensuring the Health, Safety and Preparedness of U.S. Medical Students Participating in Global Health Electives Overseas

J Community Health. 2016 Apr;41(2):442-50. doi: 10.1007/s10900-016-0169-7.


Global health electives based in resource-poor countries have become extremely popular with medical students from resource rich ones. As the number of such programs and participants increase, so too do the absolute health and safety risks. It is clear from a number of published reports that many institutions provide little or no meaningful preparedness for students and do little to ensure their health and safety. These deficiencies together can affect students, their foreign hosts, and sponsoring institutions. The School of Public Health at the State University of New York, Downstate Medical Center, and its predecessor, the Department of Preventive Medicine and Community Health, have sponsored a 6-8 week global health elective for fourth year medical students since 1980. The purposes of this elective are to provide students with an opportunity to observe the health care and public health systems in resource-poor countries, provide medical service, and have a cross-cultural experience. Over the course of the past 35 years, 386 students have participated in this global health elective in more than 41 resource-poor countries. Recent annual applications for this elective have been as high as 44 out of a class of 200 students. Over the past 10 years, annual acceptance rates have varied, ranging from a low of 32 % in 2007-2008 to a high of 74 % in 2010-2011 and 2013-2014. Careful screening, including a written application, review of academic records and personal interviews, has resulted in the selection of highly mature, adaptable, and dedicated students who have performed well at overseas sites. Appropriately preparing students for an overseas global health experience in resource-poor countries requires the investment of much professional and staff time and effort. At the SUNY Downstate School of Public Health, these resources have underpinned our Global Health in Developing Countries elective for many years. As a result, the elective is characterized by meticulous organization, extensive preparedness measures for students, and continuous monitoring of site and country safety. The health of students is ensured by one-on-one assessment of immunization needs, anti-malarials, and the provision of a five-day supply of post-exposure HIV prophylaxis. Students sign agreements regarding the legal issues, immunizations, and anti-malarials recommended as well as HIV post-exposure prophylaxis. They are also required to obtain medical evacuation insurance provided by the university, and medical care insurance valid overseas. Student travel plans are also approved as is in-country lodging. The focus of our 6-8 week global health elective is not clinical medicine. Rather, it is to enable students to learn about the health care and public health systems in a resource-poor country. Through that focus, they also come to understand the causes of health and health care disparities that exist in the country to which they are assigned. Our students are greatly advantaged with regard to cross-cultural understanding since our school is located in New York City's Borough of Brooklyn, where 40 % of the population was born outside of the U.S. Our comprehensive effort at risk management for this global health elective includes a thorough debriefing for each student upon his/her return. Special attention is given to ascertaining illness or injury while overseas, and, when necessary, immediate referral is made to an appropriate university clinical department where a student can be appropriately case managed. Meticulous oversight, careful selection of safe overseas sites, and attention to preparing students have resulted in significant risk reduction and successful experiences for the majority of our 386 students. This article describes the model we have developed for ensuring the health, safety, and preparedness of students participating in our global health elective.

Keywords: Global health electives; Health and safety of students participating in global health electives; Preparedness for global health electives.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Developing Countries
  • Education, Medical, Undergraduate
  • Global Health*
  • Humans
  • Medical Missions*
  • Safety Management*
  • Students, Medical*
  • United States