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Students without borders

Students Rita Chakrabarti, Thomas Crutcher, Quoc Vu, Gabe Franta, and Makayla Maile pose with visiting faculty member R.S. Rajan, V.S.M. (in white), from the Armed Forces Medical College, Pune. (Photo courtesy of Tricia Todd, M.P.H.)

The University’s Global Future Physician seminar takes premed students across the world to reflect on the state of health and health care today

At the University of Minnesota, a select group of students is swapping textbooks for English-Kannada dictionaries and boning up on Udupi cuisine for a premed course called the Global Future Physician (GFP), which plays out not in the classroom but amid the cacophony of Mysore, India, and across the tribal lands of the Indian state of Karnataka.

The goal of the course seems straightforward — expose students to the inner workings of a medical system in a vastly different land — but there’s a deeper challenge for the students selected to make the trip.

“We want each student to grow in personal awareness,” says Tricia Todd, M.P.H., assistant director of the University’s Health Careers Center and cofounder of the GFP seminar. “If you come back from India and haven’t learned anything about yourself, you’ve missed the point.”

The setting for the seminar is the Vivekananda Institute of Indian Studies, an outgrowth of the Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement (SYVM) that was started almost 30 years ago by a group of medical students from the Mysore Medical College. Those students, committed to the idea of “building a new civil society in India,” grew SVYM from a volunteer team that handed out medicine samples to the poor and opened tribal schools for kids in old cow sheds, to a thriving organization that today includes hospitals, clinics, schools, and more.

The backstory

The three-week seminar in India is the culmination of the Future Physician Series, classes designed to help University undergraduate or postbaccalaureate students decide whether medicine might be the career for them.

Rita Chakrabarti was among the still unsure. “I thought I wanted to go to medical school,” says Chakrabarti, a postbaccalaureate student at the University, “But I wasn’t quite convinced, so I enrolled in the Future Physician classes. Fantastic experience! Those classes helped me make the decision that medical school is something I really want.”

Future Physician students hear from practicing doctors, discuss topics such as medical ethics and primary versus specialized care, and spend time volunteering in a medical setting. Only 25 students are chosen to take the global seminar each year.

Colorful rangoli powder is used to decorate living room and courtyard floors in India during Hindu celebrations. (Photo courtesy of Tricia Todd, M.P.H.)

Destination: Mysore

Shailendra Prasad, M.D., M.P.H., was among the medical students who helped found SVYM in the early ’80s. Today, he is an assistant professor of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Minnesota — and, ultimately, the link that helped pull the pieces of Global Future Physician together.

“We wanted to give future M.D.s exposure to the social determinants of health — things like gender, socioeconomic status, education — and explore how they affect medical delivery,” says Prasad. “It’s easier to get that perspective in India because things are more stark.”

Prasad’s close connections with SVYM smoothed the way for an inaugural GFP trip to India, in January 2012.

“When we got to Mysore, they took us straight to the market in the city center,” recalls David Droullard, who was a University senior when he was chosen to participate in that first GFP trip. “It was chaotic, overwhelming — and a cunning choice by the trip leaders. The market is almost a microcosm of the diversity of India, and it really set the stage for our three weeks of learning,” says Droullard, who is now a first-year medical student at Columbia University.

And learn they did. Lectures from medical doctors and educators, visits to rural clinics and schools, and daily debriefing sessions with the faculty leaders filled each day.

“We were seeing not just the ‘what,’” explains Droullard, “but the ‘why’ behind it. In some ways, I learned more in my three weeks in India than I did in my entire junior year abroad.”

Watch, listen, learn

The entire faculty team — Todd and Prasad, who developed the program and led last year’s trip, and this year’s faculty leaders, Laura Wellington, M.D., and Keri Bergeson, M.D. — share one very clear notion: Untrained students should not go abroad to work in medical clinics.

“Other mission trips often target premed students,” says Todd, “offering them the chance to get hands-on experience in a foreign clinic. But this is an ethical issue: you shouldn’t practice medicine, anywhere, without a license.”

Wellington, a faculty physician at North Memorial Medical Center, agrees that, instead of “doing” when they’re not ready, students are better off examining global medicine issues.

“What is our role, as Westerners, as health care workers in a global community?” she asks. “What can we bring to share with their communities? What can we learn and bring back to our own communities? These are questions that are so important for anyone thinking about studying medicine to ponder.”

Returning to Minnesota at the end of January after this year’s trip, Chakrabarti was reeling from her whirlwind experience.

“My big takeaway,” she says, “was becoming aware of the social determinants of health and how they affect every single patient you will ever see as a doctor.”

By Barbara Knox, a Minneapolis-based writer and editor and frequent contributor to the Medical Bulletin.

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