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5 ways Travel Can Make You a Better Doctor

There are plenty of articles describing how traveling makes you a better person, but here I’m going to suggest that travel makes you a better doctor.  You don’t necessarily need to work as a physician in another country to pick up on some of these. You just have to take the time to travel and gain new experiences.

Here are some ways that travel can make you a better doctor.

1. Travel Makes You More Creative

A study by the Academy of Management examined fashion labels and their creative directors’ experiences abroad.  They looked at 11 seasons of fashion lines and found those that worked abroad, or had more international experiences, churned out more creative lines that were found to be innovative and useful by external audiences.

This study looked at the fashion industry, where creativity is the driving fuel for their livelihoods; however, being creative as a physician has benefits as well.  I think of it as becoming better at thinking outside of the box.  We always learn that patients don’t fit textbooks.  However, many times they also don’t fit our prejudices.  This brings us to the next point:

2. Travel Helps You Let Go of Prejudices

We learn to link race and age to certain diagnoses and medical conditions while in medical school.  It’s a part of learning the “buzzwords” and key links that allow you to pick out the right answers on exams (see more about that here).

While these “links” aren’t necessarily incorrect, they can blind us from treating certain patients only within those prejudiced parameters.  This, in turn, can lead to delayed diagnoses and delayed treatments.  Also, how many times have you seen a foreign name on your patient list and made an instant judgment about them? Or made an instant assumption?

When you see how people in other countries live, experience aspects of their culture and interact with them naturally, and realize that what you learned in school or see in the media is not entirely accurate, then you can start to let go of your prejudices. The exposure you get through travel can make you a better doctor by removing your preconceived notions and approaching each person as just another person.

3. You’re Exposed to Different Cultures

We live in a crazy world that keeps getting smaller and smaller.  Anyone, anywhere, at any time, has access and the means to go abroad.  No matter where you work, you are bound to run into patients from parts of the world that you may not have been to.  Going to those areas isn’t even necessary; what is necessary is that you recognize and be cognizant of differences in culture.

Cultural, and religious, beliefs can be a driving factor in some patients’ decision-making, and I think that it’s important that we acknowledge and express understanding of that for our patients.

In addition, doctors outside of the United States often seek medical training and exposure here. Working with these colleagues can pose cultural challenges as well, and the more you travel, the better you are at understanding where he/she is coming from.

Black Hmong in Vietnam!
Image credit: The Female Professional.

4. You Can Brush Up on Your Foreign Language Skills

Pretty self-explanatory.  Travel can make you a better doctor by helping you learn or improve your foreign language skills. Real-life experience is the best teacher. By pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, immersing yourself in a foreign country, and practicing your language skills, you’ll be able to learn how to communicate better with your patients, enhance the experience for the patient, decrease confusion and improve the informed consent process. 

Yes, interpreters have made life easier in this regard, but I’ve caught interpreter mistakes before, and so have some of my colleagues.  So, even if you aren’t fluent, knowing some basics does help.

5. Traveling Reminds You of Why You Became a Doctor

Doctors are taught to work without complaint, work without breaks, and make numerous sacrifices in the name of patient care.  Nowadays, its worse because many physicians have no choice but to work all the time: they have student loans to pay!

The culture in medicine has become so bad that depression is rampant, and suicide rates have increased.  The big problem is that we aren’t taught self-care; we aren’t told that it’s okay to take a break; we aren’t reminded that the hospital will survive without us; that we shouldn’t be guilty for taking time for ourselves and putting ourselves first.

Travel can make you a better doctor by helping you decompress and destress.  It can help you regain focus and remind you of why you do what you do.  And it’s not just about being somewhere different physically; but sometimes seeing how some parts of the world are–poor, not as clean, fewer opportunities for its citizens–can put into perspective everything you DO have and give you a whole new sense of appreciation for your own life.

Then once you’re home, you’re well-rested, clear-headed, refreshed and motivated because you will have a fresh reminder of all the positives in your life, of why you chose your field and what you hope to accomplish within it.

In Conclusion

To work abroad, practice medicine in a foreign country and provide medical care for those in need is a great way to gain exposure to a new culture, practice your language skills and understand the world better. However, international medicine is not for everyone, and certain medical specialties may not have the opportunity or the means to go abroad. If you’re in the latter group, then travel, in general, is always a good idea and a great way to give yourself the opportunity to grow and learn about the world we live in.

If you cannot take extended periods of time off, then immersing yourself in underserved neighborhoods and donating your time can provide you with the same experiences.

I believe a big piece that’s missing with us, professionally and personally, is an understanding and compassion for others. It gets lost in EMR, the daily grind of productivity and incentives, and the competition we inevitably feel from our colleagues.

Let’s take a moment to really ignore those things and remove the prejudices and assumptions we automatically make about others, especially about those from different backgrounds and cultures. I think we’ll be able to connect and see each other for what we really are: the same.

For anyone on a budget or worried about the costs of travel, you don’t have to break the bank! Check out these posts:

Travel Tips for Any Budget

For anyone willing to travel alone:

Traveling Alone: Tips for things to do once you’re there

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