Intro to Global Health—What it IS and What it ISN’T

As a Global Health Outreach volunteer working to strengthen and build capacity for laboratories around the world, I travel to many strange, new and wonderful regions. When people learn about my travels, they ask such questions as “Where are you going? Where is that exactly? What are you doing there? Isn’t it dangerous? Who’s going with you? Will you get to see any exotic animals/historical sites/seven wonders while you’re on vacation? Don’t you need shots or something to go there? Wait, don’t they eat monkey brains/fried grasshoppers/fermented worms there? Eeewwww!” Their curiosity and awe serve as a reminder that little is known about global healthcare outreach. While many people think working internationally sounds glamorous, they don’t know what this work involves.

To tell you what volunteer work in international health is all about, let me first tell you what it ISN’T.

  1. It’s not a vacation. Volunteer and staff teams are expected to present, teach and train, tour and assess laboratories, mentor improvement projects, teach phlebotomy (sometimes by collecting samples on themselves to demonstrate technique), meet with leaders of that nation’s healthcare system and participate in the country’s goals, agendas and plans for laboratory operational improvement. And, oh by the way, get up early and work late to accomplish all that in very short periods of time, without regard for jet lag or any other travel inconveniences like lost luggage. A leisurely iced tea by the pool, reading a novel, or sightseeing just isn’t going to happen (except perhaps on the 1000 km drive through the desolate, hot, deserted two lane road from point A to B…now and again you spot a warthog!). The food can be challenging, the bathrooms are a chapter all by themselves, and accommodations can be shared with insect species you can’t identify.
  2. It’s not a chance to beef up your resume. Our government, our professional societies, and the nations who invite us are all expecting a very high level expertise.  It’s necessary to have a lot of experience in order to establish credibility, and to have real experiences to share when the tough questions or collegial discussions come up—and believe me, they will come up! Before you consider volunteering, have some years in the trenches in bench laboratory operations and in manager/supervisor/director level positions.
  3. It’s not “lucrative”. Often, quite a bit of time is spent before ever leaving the U.S. preparing presentations, learning about the people and country, challenging yourself with knowing polite language and greetings, and researching. Conference calls, early morning and late evening debriefs, all are very exciting and fun—and unpaid time. It can be challenging squeezing all that around your “real job” and family commitments, etc.

Given all that, who in their right mind would want to do this?  To answer that, I’ll tell you what Global Outreach in laboratory medicine IS.

  1. It’s the chance to be part of something bigger thanyourself. You’ll be reminded that health systems we have in our country are so much more robust than what exists globally, and we should not take our laboratories for granted.
  2. It’s an opportunity to learn how to build a better mousetrap. Many times, international laboratories find solutions to problems that are less complicated or use fewer resources than we would use in the states. These ideas can be brought home and used in our labs. I’ve never yet worked on an international project where I haven’t brought back several ideas for improvements!
  3. It’s humbling. I’ve worked with so many extraordinary people who have strong skills, knowledge, education and training. They have great understanding of concepts but lack resources.  It’s about resource management and using what you have in the safest way possible to provide quality for patients. We can learn a lot from a resource-restricted environment—and we can share a lot on how to incorporate safety and quality metrics in that environment. The knowledge exchange, the relationships with international colleagues, the dedication and commitment of volunteer teammates, the results of seeing and being part of change that improves safety and patient care are rewards beyond amazing.

If you have a passion for making the laboratory world a better place, and think you have the “right stuff”, there are ways to be involved. Consider volunteer work with a local “underserved” clinic in your own community; no muss, no fuss, no immunizations, and no food challenges.  See if the rewards of volunteering ring your bell. Tap into your professional societies (ASCP as #1 of course!) and explore international volunteering, help prepare training materials,and meet others who have done this kind of work. Or, even support another volunteer (work an extra shift while he/she goes…that’s unsung hero-ship at its most altruistic!) The glamour of traveling to a project is part of it, but it takes a whole society of people in lots of roles to create positive outcomes—and together, we ALL can reach out and make a difference!

Next time….let’s talk a little bit about the history of global healthcare outreach. How did we get to where we are today?

And, oh yes, if you’re ever at the Jannat Hotel in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, be sure to have the Greek Salad. It’s amazing! If you can’t make it there in person, I have the chef’s recipe hand-written on a cocktail napkin in Kyrgyz, in milliliters and grams. If you’d like a copy, feel free to email me at:  bsumwalt@pacbell.net .

-Beverly Sumwalt

2 thoughts on “Intro to Global Health—What it IS and What it ISN’T”

  1. Very well said, Beverly. As a first time volunteer this past July, I can echo everything you said. Easy…no! Rewarding…..YES!!!!!

  2. I can identify with all of the above. I think the hardest part of the work required is the very long travel, and hassles associated with foreign and domestic airports. I love working with the individuals and teams in these countries. They are so talented, and so very dedicated to making improvements.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s