The humanitarian and economic development crises wrought by disease in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) have garnered increased attention in the past decade. At the same time, increasing numbers of US medical students have become involved in international clinical, research, and public health projects.1 In 2001, 20% of graduating US medical students had completed an international clinical elective, compared to 13.5% in 1991 and 8.6% in 1985.2 However, few formal programs and dependable funding sources for global health training are available to young physicians and medical students.1
The importance of fostering global health solutions stems from the grave and far-reaching consequences of disease in LMICs. Communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis (TB), and malaria currently account for 300 million illnesses and 5 million deaths per year, predominantly in LMICs.3 In addition, chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, cause death at an earlier age in LMICs than in established market economies, negatively affecting working-age populations.4 Aside from its medical impact, this increased disease burden has enormous political and economic consequences. According to a recent WHO study, better health care, indicated by lower rates of infant mortality, correlates with a higher rate of growth of per capita GDP.5
For these reasons, international and domestic groups are mounting larger efforts to ameliorate the health problems of LMICs. The WHO's Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria has received $2 billion in commitments from public and private sector sources and has already pledged $616 million to 40 countries.6 In addition, many US leaders now agree that one important way to prevent terrorism is to foster stable democracies through sustained interventions such as increased access to effective health care.7 The federal government has accordingly increased its commitment to global health aid, specifically to fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa.8
Expanded programs to improve health care in other countries will require more physicians trained in global health. At present, however, few medical schools offer global health training as part of their curriculum and these programs and students receive little financial support. In 1993 only 35 of 120 US medical schools offered training in global health, with 19 schools offering training during third and fourth years.1 Most global health programs rely on internal institutional support, with no program reporting more than 30% of its funding coming from outside sources.1
The few formal, funded programs that exist have reported a potential to change attitudes and to direct career choices of students and young physicians. The federally funded International Health Fellowship Program provides students with advanced preparation prior to departure for international clinical electives, placement at host sites, and a stipend to defray travel costs. Haq et al9 reported that this experience had a significant positive impact on student awareness of cultural and socioeconomic factors in patient care in both domestic and international settings. More than 90% of the participants intended to spend some time abroad during their careers.1,10 Similar programs for residents at Duke and Yale suggest that participants were more likely than non-participants to choose jobs in public health, or to work with disadvantaged populations. 10,11
Given the growing US commitment to improving health care in other countries, governmental and nongovernmental agencies will need to expand existing programs and create new ones to encourage physicians to pursue leadership roles in global health. Previous efforts to develop leaders in other medical fields have been successful and can serve as models. For example, a majority of medical students who have participated in the fully funded Medical Scientist Training Program go on to obtain faculty-level positions in biomedical research while maintaining active roles in patient care.12 Formal programs providing global health training and financial support could likewise enable talented individuals to pursue careers in global health.
Greenberg JO, Mazar RM. Toward a More Global Medical Education. JAMA. 2002;288(13):1651. doi:10.1001/jama.288.13.1651-JMS1002-5-1