When I last attended this conference in 2014, I was impressed by the breadth of topics covered, including those outside the medical and public health fields. This year, though the conference opened with a keynote speech about the burgeoning field of planetary health, which broadens the scope of health to include environmental and climate concerns, I thought the actual content of the breakout sessions was much more narrowed on the fields of public health and academic medicine. However, this focus sparked discussion of many topics relevant to the development of the global health program at UVM.
One of the most immediately applicable sessions was the first I attended which was a panel discussion of how to deal with personal and national crises with students on international medical electives. The panel highlighted a few issues that are often overlooked when making contingency or emergency plans. The one that most stuck out to me was the issue of dealing with decompensated mental health crises. It is not unreasonable to think that the stress of travel and work in an unfamiliar environment could be enough to trigger a susceptible individual’s depression or even psychosis. Thus, programs should have contingency plans and resources in place to deal with such a scenario. Perhaps the most valuable result of this session is yet to come, as email listserv was established so that program director could share resources and creative solutions to student safety issues. An important point that was brought up during the comment period was that disasters and crises are by nature dynamic and disorganized, and local events and best solutions may be those that organize local resources such as local disaster response or other global health programs with a local presence, rather than those that try to manage response from a distance.
The other ideas that could be brought back to the UVM Global Health Program came from talking with people during the poster sessions. Some of the specific projects that could be applicable to UVM included: the completion of pre-departure training via a one-week boot camp including experience with local refugee and underserved cultures; a survey showing that although students are most concerned about logistics before they left, upon return they most wish they had been better prepared in local culture and language; a finding that involving interdisciplinary and particularly undergraduate programs led to greater university administrative and financial support; a model of using an informal journal club as a forum to engage residents across disciplines in a shared discussion about global health topics; and a finding that many mentors of global health were not consistently knowledgeable about basic global topics.
There are many people trying to build global health programs, and though almost all were doing so independently, there was a general desire for more standardized resources and requirements. Although every program will be different due to the characteristics of the school and international partners, we should be open to adopting and contributing some of these general standards as they develop in the next couple of years. In this way, we can ensure that we are not overlooking important aspects of a global health while also contributing to the development of global health programs in general.