How medical professionals can prepare to work abroad

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There's no doubt that practicing medicine abroad is a noble effort. Organizations like Doctors Without Borders recruit skilled medical professionals from around the world and send them to countries with few professional medical practitioners. Often, these people face hardships when in a foreign country, and occasionally are even subject to local war zones. Nevertheless, they risk their own lives to help those in need. But while they're helping others, it's equally important that those doctors look after themselves. After all, if they get injured it becomes even harder for the local people to receive aid.

Countries in need of aid
According to the organization, Doctors Without Borders operates in over 70 countries around the world. It's most well-known for its work in impoverished African countries such as Central African Republic and South Sudan. Recently, members of the organization have rushed to disaster-stricken countries like like Nepal and Syria. Many of these places are in the midst violent conflicts, but even if that weren't the case, they would still be teeming with unsafe landscapes and buildings that do not meet American standards. In other words, they would still be at an increased risk for accidents.

Most of the medical professionals who sign up to be a part of the program do so out of a need to help those less fortunate than themselves. They know the risks going in and still decide that it's the right thing to do. One doctor from Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, Texas, wrote about his experience in Liberia. He described a country without a major electrical grid, its cities full of abandoned and destroyed buildings. Even the main airport had been destroyed by war. He stayed in a house without hot water and with access to electricity only 16 hours out of every day. From even these few details, it's easy to see how any number of accidents are possible. To put it another way, if there's a serious potential for unintentional accidents in American hospitals, just imagine what the potential would be in a Liberian medical facility.

Accommodations in the field aren't always up to western standards. Accommodations in the field aren't always up to western standards.

Injuries and illnesses
Many Doctors Without Borders sites will have around 10 medical staff on hand at any given time, though the numbers will vary by area and potential needs. Much of the work done by DWB workers is about preventing the spread of infectious diseases, such as cholera, malaria and ebola. They also do a lot of work to increase the local population's access to medicine and regular medical care.

Many of the more serious injuries or deaths experienced by members of DWB are due to armed conflicts between local forces. At the same time, the medical staff has to deal with the normal accidents that occur in hospitals, such as slipping, tripping, and falling. Even in American hospitals, medical staff are prone to high numbers of slipping and falling injuries as well as injuries due to overexertion. According to DWB, their staff are often put to the test under extremely stressful situations. Moreover, they sometimes need to adhere to strict curfew rules for their own safety.

Preparation for going abroad
There are several criteria that a person must meet before being accepted by the DWB program. A minimum of two years professional experience are required as well as some relevant travel experience. Applicants must be willing to live in poor conditions for at least nine months at a time. And of course, language skills are big plus.

"Bringing the proper footwear is extremely important."

As for what to bring on a trip, it depends greatly on the allowed baggage weight, which, for most projects, is only 20 kilograms, or about 45 pounds. Laura Bridle, a midwife who worked in South Sudan, reported that bringing the proper footwear is extremely important. She recommended taking a couple different pairs for different occasions and so that when one pair gets damp, it can be switched out for another. Doctors and nurses are on their feet most of the day, which means they need a shoe that's comfortable and works as hard as they do. In a crisis situation, it's easy to take an accidental fall, so it's a good idea to pack a pair of slip-resistant shoes.

Other items Bridle recommended include flashlights, toiletries, durable clothing, snack food from home and books with which to stay occupied during free time. She also said it's important to bring along something that will remind you of home, because often it's the change of culture and living situation that can really cause even more stress. In that kind of situation, a person is more susceptible to accidents.

Medical professionals looking to work abroad with an organization like Doctors Without Borders put themselves at an increased risk for injury, but the risks definitely outweigh the benefits. Coming into the situation with the right mindset is very important, as is taking along the right equipment and staying vigilant while in the field.

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