New York City at the end of winter may not be the ideal spring break location for most students, but it was one of three highly sought-after destinations for students from the Master of Science in Global Medicine program. Traveling to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Bocas del Toro, Panama; and New York City for courses, 32 global medicine (GM) students had the opportunity to explore issues in global health beyond USC’s classrooms.

Despite a blizzard blanketing New York City on only the second day of the trip, students were able to tour the United Nations building and meet with leaders at UNICEF and United Nations Development Program (UNDP), learning much about the diverse challenges in the field of global health.

“The initial reason why I wanted to do the New York trip was to better understand the United Nations’ work,” said GM student Sandrine Kyane. “I want to go to medical school and I definitely want to become a physician, but my ultimate goal is to work for UNICEF because I’ve always been interested in working in underserved areas. This course showed me the steps I need to take to get there,” she added, noting that the lectures by United Nations officials about topics such as polio eradication, breastfeeding and maternal health really helped her to synthesize her GM coursework.

Offered three times a year on four continents, each off-campus course in the GM program combines intensive pre-departure study about health care issues in a specific area with travel to the destination where students experience a place personally. While in the field, students observe global health practices from clinical, policy and management perspectives. Each course is tailored to its location and offers students insight into the particular medical and health care challenges, and community or government responses, of a given region.

“Before we were even able to depart, we had a lot of reading assignments (that gave) us background knowledge on the culture, [and] the main medical cases we were going to run into,” said Tyler Adame, who spent the break on a remote island in eastern Panama. His group was able to spend time at a clinic run by Floating Doctors, a nonprofit group that seeks to provide medical care to underserved and rural populations in Panama.

The mobile health clinic set up by Floating Doctors “was a little bit of a surprise to me,” he said. “We had an awning, no walls, just a roof and cement flooring. We brought in some old chairs from a nearby school so we could have little stations. But once it gets going, everyone makes it work. It’s serving the purpose. It’s different than how we think of medical care here in the United States.”

Adame continued, “you’re put in a situation where you are uncomfortable, but you get used to it. You become so appreciative of so many things … that everybody takes for granted like running water, sanitation, the comfort of just being able to go to the hospital or clinic and get care right away instead of having to wait three months or more.” Adame noted that the trip opened his eyes and reinforced his decision to apply to medical school.

“Students truly expand their perspectives on global health when they visit these different regions and meet professionals who directly face these challenges in the field, whether in remote and underserved regions, or in more developed countries with excellent health care systems,” said Elahe Nezami, PhD, associate professor of clinical preventive medicine and medical education (educational scholar); associate dean for undergraduate, masters and professional programs; director, health promotion and global health programs; and director, global medicine program (MSGM). “It reinforces the inter-relatedness of their coursework and provides students with the opportunity to observe first-hand health care scenarios which may differ greatly from what they are used to here in California. Working with in-country partners is invaluable to our students’ understanding of the ethical provision of health care and distribution of resources.”

In Malaysia, students spent five days at the University of Malaya where they learned about the national health care system and efforts to combat the double burden of communicable and non-communicable diseases, like dengue and diabetes, which heavily affect the Malaysian populace. Students also learned about Malaysia’s universal health coverage while observing clinical settings in Malaysia’s capital city, and making field visits to sites outside of the capital.

“I loved being able to see all of the places that patients could go to receive care. At clinics, at hospitals, at community health centers, there really is this integrated system where people can receive coordinated levels of care,” said Katherine Wilkinson, a GM student on the Malaysia trip.

Wilkinson was inspired by what she observed in Malaysia, citing the applicability of what she learned to her career in hospital administration in the U.S. “It was really great to see how they are doing process improvement efforts in Malaysia,” she said. “I brought stuff back to show my coworkers.”

Noting the top-down organizational structure of the Malaysian health care system, affordable education for doctors and innovative aspects of pharmacy that could influence improvements to U.S. systems as a few of the highlights of the trip, she reflected, “Wow, this is stuff that we could be using!”

All students who participate in these field study courses are required to present their insights and observations at the Global Citizenship Roundtable, hosted every semester by the Master of Science in Global Medicine program. Recipients of the Dhablania and Kim Family Global Medicine Fellowship also present their research, which are often done in conjunction with the study abroad courses.

“The Roundtable is one of our most anticipated events, as it allows students to give voice to the differences and similarities in care and organization that they have witnessed, and to reflect on the lessons they have learned from our partners abroad. Nothing has a greater impact on their development as global citizens than their study while traveling, and we are glad to know they carry the perspective they gain to varied training and education for careers as clinicians, researchers, public health officials, and health administrators, among others,” Nezami said.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Adame. “I would never change this experience,” he said. He and his teammates have expressed strong desire to return to Panama after completing the GM program.

Those interested in learning more about the Master of Science in Global Medicine program and the Global Citizenship Roundtable should visit or contact the Global Medicine office at (323) 442-3141.

— Ryan Seuffert