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Global Health Careers: Getting Started as a Nurse

One of the most frequent questions I get asked by nurses and students alike is about building a global health career.  This is always music to my ears because more nurses need to work in global health at every level, from the frontline to the policymakers at international health organizations.  

The good news: There is no single, "correct" path to take.  The bad news: There is no single, "correct" path take.  In light of that, let's focus on a few basics first.

Personality

If any of the following freaks you out, a global health career is probably not for you: 
  • Working with few resources
  • Clinical practice that can, at times, be a bit fly by the seat of your pants
  • Managing systems that have little or no structure to them, or so much structure that even the people who live and work with them can't figure them out
  • Dealing with poverty so extreme it's in your face all the time
  • People speaking other languages around you makes you uncomfortable
  • You live life certain there is one right way of doing something
  • You have trouble being flexible
  • You are uncomfortable taking risks
  • Conducting research without a guaranteed steady stream of funding or with only small grants
Experience

Experience can come in several ways but it is generally required of all global health careers for nurses.  Here's a few common ways colleagues have built experience in global health.

Kelly - Upon graduation, Kelly took a job on an oncology floor at a US hospital.  She knew she wanted to work on the global health frontlines so she had to be sharp clinically.  With two years experience under her belt, she had solid technical skills, great critical thinking ability, knew how to respond to a crisis, and most importantly, she knew how to what it meant to help someone die.  When she went to work for an international NGO doing emergency child nutrition work in South Sudan and other regional hotspots, she felt prepared clinically for the daily routine.

Honora - As a nurse practitioner who worked mostly in minority neighborhoods through faith-based programs, Honora hadn't considered working in global health until she went on a trip to Central America with a colleague from work.  She found her diabetes prevention skills had application even in small, under resourced communities and that nursing interventions made a big difference.  Honora now maintains a clinical practice in the US but makes at least four trips a year to her clinical site.  She focuses on capacity building of local nursing personnel and basic prevention.  While she self-funds or fundraises for a lot of her work there, a series of small grants have helped make her projects more sustainable.

Max - After a stint in the Peace Corps and work with a few other international health organizations where he gained program management experience, Max returned to school for a nursing degree.  With his previous global health experience enhanced by his nursing degree, he expanded his career opportunities.  He first took a frontline clinical job and then eventually transitioned into managing large community development projects.


So...
These are just three examples of ways you can get into global health work.  You may find that it involves a few years of sacrifice and volunteer work, but if the field sings to you, it will bring many rewards.

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