Unquestionably, entrance into medical school is becoming increasingly competitive for pre-health students. While some once took comfort in a high GPA and MCAT score being the determining factors of acceptance, admissions committees now seek a more well rounded student. Their ideal candidate, while boasting a strong and consistent academic record, has a story or experience to share that makes them uniquely them. Application readers want to learn about the person behind the test scores, and how an applicant’s experiences have shaped their perspective and possibly career trajectory. Many students choose to volunteer, take on leadership positions in student organizations, and shadow physicians outside of the classroom.
Uniquely, there has been a new trend in pre-med students taking part in international medical mission trips. On these immersion trips, volunteers gain firsthand experience by providing underprivileged communities with free medication and knowledge about health. Volunteering with the disadvantaged communities awakens students to inequalities of health care around the world. Opportunities such as shadowing physicians and attending medical classes educate the volunteers about that country’s medical practices, leading them to compare and contrast them to the American medical policies. In these developing nations privacy issues are not as rigid, allowing students to witness serious medical conditions. They also come into contact with physicians with completely different styles medical practice than in the United States. One physician from the Volunteer Around the World mission trip to Peru of 2016, encouraged all of his patients to always “be happy,” as he stressed that the mental well-being of patients was crucial to healing. Learning new viewpoints such as this can help students to develop unique qualities that will shape them into sensible physicians. Traveling to another country, learning another language, and living with strangers stimulates social skills and promotes inter cultural understanding, all skills that are valued in a hospital setting.
As extraordinary of an experience this may be, there are skeptical aspects of medical mission trips. Sometimes they are referred to as “Voluntourism,” referring to how it exploits a demographic for a student’s personal benefit to go on a vacation, publicize themselves on social media, or add to their resumes. The fact that a student travels all the way to another country to shadow doctors and participate in service work is questionable, as there are plenty of doctors and people in need in the U.S.A. Why go to another country, to “make a vacation out of it”? Although the traveling experience is an added bonus, medical mission trips are not exactly relaxing vacations. Teaching and volunteering with the communities requires extensive planning and research, while setting up mobile clinics to deliver medication requires organized twelve hour work days. Through performing such labor-intensive tasks while immersed in a completely new part of the world, medical mission trips produce persevering and cultured individuals. Another criticism points out that the trips are also only a few weeks long, so they lack the quality of being a serious time commitment. Although this may be true, the few weeks committed by the volunteers affect the natives for the rest of their lives. By receiving not only free medication but also knowledge and advice about how to maintain their health, so much of their suffering has been relieved. By taking away these people’s pain, students are further reminded of aspirations to pursue a career in medicine.
The positive aspects of medical mission trips greatly outweigh the criticisms. The incredible experience of learning about medicine while simultaneously being able to give back to the underprivileged countries across the globe is invaluable for any pre health student. Dr Jim Johnson, the pre-health advisor at Loyola University of Chicago explained that “a passion for medicine should extend beyond borders.” In an increasingly globalized world, it is important to understand the state of healthcare around the world. Pre-medical students are future of medicine, and medical mission trips are the key producing well-rounded, educated physicians that will improve healthcare.