A third world international health elective for U.S. medical students: the 25-year experience of the State University of New York, Downstate Medical Center

Pascal James Imperato
Journal of Community Health 2004, 29 (5): 337-73
The Department of Preventive Medicine and Community Health at the State University of New York, Downstate Medical Center instituted a 6-8 weeks third world international health elective for fourth year medical students in 1980. Since that time, some 217 students have participated in a score of third world countries. However, the most popular sites have been India, Kenya and Thailand. The purposes of this elective are to provide fourth year medical students with an opportunity to observe and study the structure and functions of a health care delivery system in a third world country, to provide medical service, and to have a cross-cultural experience. The emphasis in this elective is on public health, preventive medicine and primary care. There are high levels of student competition for this elective. However, interest in it has been affected by world events such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the recent outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in Asia. Recent annual applications for this elective have been twenty-five and more out of a class of two hundred students. Annual acceptance rates vary considerably, ranging from as low as 27.2% in 1995-1996 to a high of 81.8% in 1987-1988. Careful screening, including an examination of academic records and personal interviews, has resulted in the selection of highly mature, adaptable, and dedicated students who overall have performed well at overseas sites. Student rated satisfaction levels with this elective are extremely high, with most rating it the best experience of their medical school years. Students undergo extensive preparation prior to going overseas. This includes individual health and safety issues, travel and lodging, and the nature of the host country culture, health care system, and assignment site. Our students are especially experienced in cross-cultural understanding because of the unusual diversity of the patients they treat in Brooklyn, and the ethnic diversity of local hospital staff and the medical school class. This Brooklyn experience in cross-cultural understanding has been cited by many participants as having been the best preparation for functioning in a foreign culture. In the late 1990s, we revised our procedures concerning health preparations so as to address the risk of HIV/AIDS and other blood borne diseases. In addition, we also adopted an Agreement and Release form containing 15 provisions requiring risk and responsibility assumption on the part of the student participants. The Alumni Fund of the College of Medicine has steadfastly supported this elective with both a philosophical commitment and financial grants to help defray travel costs. In 1998, Joshua H. Weiner of the class of 1941 created a sizeable endowment in the Alumni Fund of the College of Medicine to support students participating in this elective. In 2001, Sonja K. Binkhorst, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the Downstate Medical Center, arranged for some financial support for women medical students through the LSK Foundation and the American Medical Women's Association. During the years that this elective has been offered, overseas preceptors have willingly given of their time and institutional resources to make these experiences available and meaningful for students.

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