The Price to Get Ahead

Looking at the most current data from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), in 2017, less than 50% of applicants that applied to medical school matriculated with a medical school (21,030/53,402). The number of applicants does not even reflect the actual number of those wishing to continue their education in medical school–many other students are unable to apply because they need to pass the prerequisite courses, maintain a competitive GPA, or achieve a good MCAT score. Additionally, high school students, aspiring to be future physicians, attempt to maintain a high GPA and above average SAT scores to apply to schools with programs geared towards pre-meds. With so many high schools students and undergraduate students wanting to pursue a career in medicine, it takes more than just statistics such as their GPA and test scores to reach that goal. Many undergraduate colleges and medical schools look for experiences in medicine that set these applicants apart.

These experiences come with a substantial price. High school students and undergraduate students, looking for an experience that will “set themselves apart from the crowd”, often turn to medical voluntourism (GapMedics). Medical voluntourism gives unqualified individuals a chance to travel abroad and volunteer in the medical field. These trips, whose websites “prioritize prospective volunteers’ interests rather than the interests of those they purportedly serve” often do more harm than good (Sullivan, 2017). The companies promote these trips as “resume boosters” instead of actually designing programs that will help individuals in third world countries that need medical help. As Genna said in our class discussion, these trips put the tourists needs ahead of everyone else. The tourist is benefiting at the price of the health of those in the country they travel to.

A high school graduate reflecting on his trip stated that he had “experiences [he] thought [he] wouldn’t have until after three or four years in medical school” (Sullivan, 2017). Maybe there is a reason why experiences that trained, veteran medical students have are typically unavailable to teenage high school students in the US. High school students are not qualified to perform procedures reserved for medical professionals. While abroad, medical legislation is typically looser, and volunteer companies utilize this to provide clinical experiences to youth that are unavailable in the United States. These “experiences”  basically dehumanize the patient behind these interactions–the tourists benefit is the main consideration, while the individual receiving treatment is mainly a material for the tourist to work with. The usage of individuals as “clinical material” in medicine in not new–southern medical schools increased their attractiveness to medical students by advertising their “availability of copious ‘clinical material’” (Washington, 106). The “clinical material”  southern medical schools referred to was black slaves. Companies advertising “experiences” in the medical field in third world countries are treating the individuals in these countries in the same manner. By dehumanizing them and focusing solely on the tourists benefit, the individuals in these third world countries are merely “clinical material” for the tourists benefit.

In reading about medical voluntourism, I could not help but think of my own trip to Tanzania in when I was 16. I stayed with a group of 10 other teens from around the world, and every day for three weeks we visited a local primary school and “taught English”. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the trip, I question if we helped the children at all. None of us were qualified to teach English, and since we were only there for three weeks, we did not have enough time to acquire the skills by experience. However, the trip was the focal point of my college essays and was brought up my college interviews. Even though the trip was not medically related, I honestly believe that it was a major selling point in my application. In reading Noelle Sullivan’s article and reflecting on my trip to Tanzania, I now have mixed feelings. It saddens me to think that my trip harmed individuals in Tanzania at my benefit. Although I do not necessarily regret the trip, I will never go on a trip like that again nor encourage others to. Reflecting on Sullivan’s article and Medical Apartheid helped me to realize how these trips exploit the country’s individuals and their resources. The children I visited in Tanzania would have benefited more if I have donated the money it cost for me to go on the trip, rather than going there myself.

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