August 8, 2016

Kolars touts global health electives on med student podcast

Coursework, rotations, research and studying for boards. In an already-crowded medical school curriculum, what is the value of squeezing in an international experience?

Finding time and energy for an international elective isn’t easy, but it can be infinitely rewarding. Dr. Joseph Kolars, Director of Global REACH, recently appeared on the American Medical Student Association podcast to make the case for working abroad as a medical student.

“Students learn a great deal about themselves when they have to go into a completely different culture with a completely different set of resources,” says Kolars, Senior Associate Dean for Education and Global Initiatives. “When you go into low-resource settings, there are lots of problems and opportunities. And it’s widely known that many innovations come from people trying to solve problems in low-resource settings.”

Featured on the AMSA podcast, Ad Lib, the 15-minute conversation touches on many topics: the importance and potential impact of an international elective; advice to help students make the most of their experience; and why global health work is important because of – and not despite – the health disparities that exist right here in the U.S.

“One of the reasons I like advocating for global experiences is the personal growth that comes from having to navigate issues in a new context; you become more in touch with your assumptions that often limit the way you see the world.” Kolars says. “I know of a number of people who focus on domestic health equity who were first ignited or turned on to these issues by a global health experience.”

Such was the case with Dr. Kolars, whose own experience as a medical student on rotation in Nepal in the 1980s made an indelible impact on his subsequent career. In the podcast, he tells how patients in western Nepal spent hours in line to see him and his preceptor, also an American, only to then immediately get in another line to see a local doctor. Why? Did they feel dissatisfied with his diagnosis? In a word, yes, the Nepali doctors told the young American student.

“They said, ‘You’ve got to tell patients something they can do or modify in their diet or lifestyle to make them feel like they have more control,’” Dr. Kolars recalls. “Over the decades since that student experience, lifestyle and diet have become much more commonplace for a lot of doctors. But that sense of trying to better understand what a patient needs to see or hear to make them feel cared for – that was a lesson from my student days that I still carry with me.”