Guidelines for Undergraduate Health-Related Experiences Abroad

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Experiential education in health-related settings abroad has the potential to provide expansive learning opportunities for undergraduate students, but also presents unique challenges not typically encountered in other education abroad contexts. Public health and patient-care activities involve highly technical interactions that have repercussions on health and well-being, possibly putting patients, host communities, and students at risk. Importantly, these interactions entail ethical underpinnings, evidence-based medical/public health approaches, and cultural contextualization that are beyond the students’ level of training and experience.

These guidelines have been created to support institutions and organizations that are involved in experiential learning opportunities for undergraduate students in clinical and community health settings. This document is essential because of the competency- and systems-based nature of safe and effective health care and public health provision. Systems look very different around the world and people coming from resource-rich frames of reference often make assumptions about the needs of health systems operating with fewer or differently allocated resources. Students may have an inflated sense of their own skills and competencies and in their desire to help, may be unaware of the potential for unintended harms that accompany any health intervention. The host community and health professionals need to know each student’s level of competency, or lack thereof, and the services a student is permitted to provide, or not provide. Students must be trained to recognize not only the risks they pose to themselves and to patients and communities, but also to understand and avoid perpetuating neocolonial patterns of engagement in Global Health Education. Many stakeholders facilitating these student experiences are not healthcare or public health professionals, so it may be difficult for them to recognize suboptimal approaches and risk. There is growing evidence that even healthcare and public health professionals and faculty often hold outdated notions of what student activities are appropriate during experiential education, education abroad, and volunteering in health-related settings. This resource is written to address these issues.

These Guidelines apply to undergraduate health-related experiences abroad. The Standards of Good Practice for Education Abroad apply to all education abroad opportunities. Use them together to develop and assess health-related experiences abroad.

To conduct education abroad programming in a way that promotes social, economic, and environmental well-being, refer to the guidelines for Advancing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals through Education Abroad and the Guidelines for Community Engaged Learning Abroad.

For additional guidance for specific program types, we also encourage you to review the other offerings in The Forum’s series of Guidelines. 

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