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Jan. 31, 2013

Challenges abroad build better doctors

Medical students at Michigan State University are lending their skills to clinics in the developing world. They'll return with valuable lessons to improve health care at home.

Leadership in Medicine for the Underserved, a Flint-based program of the College of Human Medicine, has sent students to Nicaragua, Peru, India and other countries each year since 2004. This year’s eight-week trip, which runs through February, has four students in El Salvador and five in Uganda.

“We are learning a lot,” wrote Justin Lockwood, a fourth-year student in the Uganda group, in an email after a two-week power outage. “We are seeing things we’ve never seen and working within a system with very different resources than MSU.”

For instance, Lockwood said some patients arrive at the clinic in rural Mbale with infections that the few antibiotics on hand aren’t meant to treat. At an American hospital, the students would have access to a wide array of specialized drugs. But in Uganda, they sometimes must weigh the risk of treating a patient with the wrong antibiotic against giving them none at all.

The work and living conditions may be challenging, but that’s part of the program’s design.

“Our motivation is to help the students develop as global citizens and be able to incorporate cultural sensitivity into their work,” said Rae Schnuth, director of the program and an assistant dean in the College of Human Medicine.

“The immersion in another culture is really powerful in helping them understand what’s important in their interactions with patients. They come back with gifts of learning that really enhance their understanding of our health system and some strategies for making it better.”

Lockwood said the experience also gives the students a confidence boost as they prepare to transition from students to doctors.

“Feeling like we are invited and able to become an integral part of patient care has been the most rewarding aspect of the trip thus far,” he said. “We learn a lot from our patients and the local health care workers who care for them. But we also feel we are finally, finally able to use our skills to offer them help of our own.”

The students are blogging about their experiences in Uganda and El Salvador at

By: Andy McGlashen