Saturday, July 31, 2010

International Exchange

The University of Michigan Medical School and most medical schools all around the US are missing out. By virtue of being an American Born Chinese, I have been directly and indirectly involved in international exchange for as long as I can remember. Many of my travels to countries around the world were a result of international exchange or cultural immersion programs and with the start of medical school, I knew that was an area of my life that would diminish drastically. But, being in Ghana has taught me that international exchange and travel is definitely still possible.

While staying at the Clinical Students’ Hostel in Kumasi, I have had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know several international medical students visiting Ghana for about a month on elective rotations in internal medicine, surgery, emergency medicine, and OB/GYN. Since nearly all of international travel at Michigan is sponsored and organized through relationships established by the University of Michigan Medical School and faculty, I assumed that all of the international students were here as a result of similar relationships. It turns out that I was wrong.

The International Federation of Medical Students’ Association (IFMSA) is a collection of medical students’ associations all around the world with 97 member nations from 89 countries encompassing 1.2 million medical students. Its activities include medical student bilateral exchanges, conferences, collaborative projects, and workshops. Projects include medical outreach and health education initiatives and others that provide medical equipment and medical education supplies to developing countries. The largest conference is the annual General Assembly. This year, the General Assembly is in Montreal and students from all around the world are currently traveling to attend this meeting.

The most unique programming that IFMSA provides is probably the bilateral exchange program. Through IFMSA more than 11,000 medical students annually have the opportunity to experience the practice of medicine in a health system different from their own country. Medical schools from the member nations develop contracts with each other: for every medical student from country A that comes to visit country B, a country B equivalent medical student visits country A. Since debt seems to be a general concern for all medical students globally, the bilateral exchange is a very cost effective way to engage in international learning. As a believer that cultural sensitivity cuts across all industries and fields, especially as global travel becomes easier and easier, I think these exchanges are playing a key role in developing a truly international physician workforce with a strong grasp of comparative health systems and the global delivery of health care. We all live in different countries, but despite these superficial differences, we all face very similar health care challenges: how to deliver quality health care to all.

In a more immediate time frame, having the IFMSA exchange students around has added greatly to the international flavor of my stay in Ghana. The best example I can think of is this international potluck dinner we had last Thursday. Each student was asked to make an international dish that best represents them. In a previous food post I had griped about the lack of the proper ingredients to make Chinese food, but after combing through the city of Kumasi, I was able to find all of the ingredients I needed to make Chinese pan-fried dumplings and guacamole (not meant to be eaten together). If I can make dumplings with just a small hot plate at my disposal, anything is possible in Ghana.

The dinner was a truly international affair. The Ghanaians made kelewele (spiced fried plantain bits), yam balls (fried yam balls with meat inside), and asaana (purple maize and pineapple drink). The Spaniards made Spanish omelets, sangria, and this light tomato sauce to be eaten with cured meats (various forms of jamon) and bread. Shy made samosas and chicken tikka. The Austrians brought chocolate and marzipan truffles. Mathias, although Swiss, represented Italy with some spaghetti. Dimitri made a yogurt based dish and brought in some delicious feta cheese on top of fresh tomatoes. The tables were packed with food. I’m happy to report that my dumplings (while I intended to make pork dumplings, I was given beef. Very unconventional…but still tasted good, haha) and guacamole were hits: no leftovers! We then danced the night away to Ghanaian, Greek and American music.

For unknown reasons, the US is a member of IFMSA, but very few exchanges occur between the US and other countries. If your medical school offers IFMSA exchanges, I’d highly recommend participating. I’m definitely going to look into this back at the University of Michigan!

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