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Volunteering for our education

For years, one of the highlights of medical school has been the elective term. Travelling to developing countries, students get a taste of a different health care landscape and, as a consequence, wish to pursue this interest as junior doctors. Further, diseases are becoming increasingly less confined by geographical boundary, as demonstrated by ‘airport malaria’. Given this, clinical exposure to infectious diseases previously rare in western countries can only be beneficial in the 21st Century. Beyond medical school, options for vocational training in the developing world are severely limited and many argue that this should be improved to provide trainees with exposure to a broader range of pathology to equip them for the future.

16 Sep 2012

For years, one of the highlights of medical school has been the elective term. Travelling to developing countries, students get a taste of a different health care landscape and, as a consequence, wish to pursue this interest as junior doctors. Further, diseases are becoming increasingly less confined by geographical boundary, as demonstrated by ‘airport malaria’. Given this, clinical exposure to infectious diseases previously rare in western countries can only be beneficial in the 21st Century. Beyond medical school, options for vocational training in the developing world are severely limited and many argue that this should be improved to provide trainees with exposure to a broader range of pathology to equip them for the future.

The AMA Council of Doctors in Training has long been pushing for colleges to accredit advanced trainees undertaking training in developing countries. The caveat is that sufficient support is provided and that the placement benefits the local community. RANZCOG has been one such college considering facilitating this, and others are looking to follow.

Outside of medicine, AusAid runs the Australian Youth Ambassador for Development (AYAD) program, supporting skilled young Australians to volunteer in the Asia-Pacific region to work in developing countries for between three and twelve months. Various health disciplines are included but, unfortunately, placements in clinical medicine are non-existent at present. Junior doctors keen for this exposure have been undertaking health promotion placements. In one such example, one junior doctor recently returned from Cambodia after running an HIV education program. Apart from the clear issues with interruption of training, many other junior doctors perceive significant barriers to volunteering in both Australian and overseas settings, despite their eagerness to do so.

Future Health Leaders (FHL) is a recently established organisation that helps to link students and early-career health professionals with existing volunteer programs and initiatives in Australia and overseas. CDT has become part of the FHL stakeholder forums, which include student and early-career representative organisations across health science disciplines. This is also a great advocacy avenue for the AMA to push training issues as well as broader public health advocacy.

The FHL Conference held recently in Adelaide illustrated many of the important health changes that we will likely see in the future. These include the rise in chronic disease, change in infectious disease patterns and resistance, as well as the increasingly migratory health workforce. We need to be prepared for the future, and volunteering in poor communities both in Australia and overseas can give trainees crucial experience to help them in their future practice.

Vocational medical education needs to change. To confine doctors to restricted geographical areas for the vast majority of their vocational training is to limit their opportunities and experience, and not in their best interests or that of their future patients.


Published: 16 Sep 2012