Prepare to Live and Work Abroad in Global Health

career development public health jobs remote work Nov 14, 2023

Ideally, everyone should have equal and equitable access to healthcare and basic human rights. However, there are vast differences in the distribution of resources, income, and education across the globe which directly impact a community’s quality of life. Global health falls within the greater umbrella of public health but looks at health inequalities worldwide, ranging from women and children's health, infectious disease control, public policy, and water access and sanitation initiatives. It is a translational area of study which involves cross-collaboration across multiple disciplines to develop practical, long-lasting solutions for complex health issues, bringing together large non governmental organizations (NGO) with government agencies, philanthropy, and healthcare experts to better serve community members. 

Global health can be a great field for individuals who have plenty of tenacity, love to travel, are critical thinkers, and enjoy collaborating with colleagues that come from all backgrounds. While living and working abroad in global health can be incredibly rewarding, it can also come with its own unique set of challenges.

Physical Circumstances 

Living abroad gives you the privilege to experience nuanced barriers local communities face in accessing equitable care, which in turn influences the ability to develop a more tailored, long-lasting intervention. Chances are when you are asked to respond to a global health emergency, it’s in a low-income, low-resource country. The areas you’re called to serve may not always be in major cities that have access to the same amenities as your home countries, such as- access to potable running water, WIFI and smart phones, credit cards, central air conditioning, electrical appliances, and restrooms. The types of cuisines and produce available may be different, which can be challenging if you have dietary restrictions. Local food, insects, and water can leave you vulnerable to communicable diseases, so be prepared with the right kinds of medications.

Each country has its own quirks, and it can take a few months to acclimate to the new surroundings. You will likely experience culture shock – times when everything feels completely unfamiliar and impossible. Small tasks, like buying groceries, getting a local sim card, or mailing a package, can be very overwhelming and exhausting so it is important to be patient with yourself. These feelings are completely natural, so don’t be afraid to ask for help and take things slow! Be sure to research the cultural norms in the country you are living and working abroad in so that you are respectful and don’t attract unwanted attention. 

This can include:

  • learning the language
  • understanding geography of the area
  • learning social and business etiquettes
  • finding the safest transportation options
  • dressing in an appropriate style
  • being mindful of any prevalent crimes
  • packing medications for any anticipated health problems

Preparation and research can help your transition go much smoother and ensure you get the most out of your experience abroad. It takes time to adjust to different standards of living but with an open mind and flexibility, you can navigate it like a pro! 

Cultural Competency 

The expectations when traveling to another country for vacation versus living and working abroad as a global health professional are almost incomparable. Different cultures each have their own norms, values, and customs which can be challenging to navigate in both a professional and personal context. Culture, religion, and language strongly impact how people understand health concepts, interpret ailments, and seek care. Social and cultural challenges can create the greatest barriers in delivering care, so it’s a necessity to have cultural competency when approaching complex health issues in a different country. 

Although you can study the language and do extensive research on the communities you are working with, the most valuable way of developing this skill is by living abroad and having face-to-face interactions with the locals. Even with a lot of preparation, there can be a large gap between what your expectations of living abroad are versus the experiences you go through once you arrive. Having a rigid personality or ethnocentric mindset, such as assuming everyone can speak English, can only create additional challenges to your experience and rob you of the opportunity to expand your worldview and evolve. That is why you should be malleable in your personality so that you can adapt and redirect yourselves to whatever situations get thrown at you, both on and off the clock! Keeping an impartial and inquisitive mind opens you up to new possibilities and perspectives that you may not have otherwise considered. Professionally with this mindset, you can gain the trust of local leaders and provide high-quality care that is respectful and directly responsive to the populations you serve. 

Mental Health 

When living and working abroad, it is critical that global health workers take care of their mental and physical well-being. It takes a lot of mental toughness and emotional self-sufficiency to withstand the challenges that come with serving overseas. Responding to global health crises, especially during an epidemic, is an emotionally and physically demanding task. You can be expected to collaborate with individuals who come from various disciplines, cultures, and mindsets in a time-sensitive and high- stress environment. At your job, you are constantly adjusting to new working standards, new forms of leadership, and communication barriers (especially public health jargon), all while being expected to maintain a high conduct of professionalism. 

On a personal level surviving abroad can be equally demanding. There are times when you can feel lonely, have difficulty connecting with locals, and feel stressed out by all the new adjustments. If your placed in a country that is not tourist-friendly, then you may face racial and gender stigma which can be mentally depleting. It’s easy to feel homesick, especially if you are living in a time zone that makes it hard to speak with loved ones. Be sure to work through your emotions and have steps already in place that help you stay balanced and peaceful!

How to Overcome These Challenges

    1. Build a Support System- Try to integrate with the local community so you can immerse yourself in the local culture and traditions. It can be just as beneficial to find expats who speak your native language and share similar interests.  
    2. Establish a Routine- Try to find a few activities that keep you grounded and give you structure while navigating an unfamiliar country. This can be hitting the gym, having a cup of coffee, or going to a bookstore. 
    3. Do something you love- Try to engage in hobbies that you would at home. It’s easy to feel less homesick when you can find pieces of familiarity and it gives you something to look forward to. For example, if you love art, then you can find pottery or painting classes! 
    4. Make your house a home- Try to decorate your new living space with all your favorite things so that you feel safe and at ease when you come back home. This can be anything from hanging up photographs or posters to lighting candles!  

The beauty of working in global health is the plethora of opportunities to grow rapidly in both a professional and personal capacity. You get to serve underrepresented populations to create a powerful impact in reducing the gap of health determinants and at the same time be thrown into new situations that encourage you to expand our consciousness and grow. You get to develop critical translational life skills that allows you to adapt to surroundings quicker, innovatively approach situations, and maintain an open mind in new contexts- all while changing the world!

Check out global health job opportunities and tips on getting a job in public health after graduating on our website and weekly Instagram job postings @publichealthhired . 

Contributor: Sarvani is a public health professional with a background in implementation science and bid/capture with a strong interest in infectious disease and environmental health. She is passionate about being on the ground, working with vulnerable, low-resource communities to develop tools that empower and bring about long lasting, sustainable change. She enjoys working with NGOs and has talent in breaking communication barriers through multilingual abilities. Sarvani holds an undergraduate degree in Human Health from Emory University and her Masters in Public Health with a concentration in Social Epidemiology from New York University. During her Masters, Sarvani has lived in Buenos Aires supporting research on Chagas Disease and in Madrid. Connect with her on LinkedIn!

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