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So, You Want a Nursing Career in Global Health - How to get Started

I've worked in or been on research studies that cover 30 countries to date. With that global experience, I frequently do lectures about global health issues at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Millenials want to get out there and see the world and Gen X and Boomers are looking for meaningful career changes. The theme is common: They want to help the less fortunate in other countries. It's not to say they don't want to help the less fortunate in their own country; I think it's become something of seeing the consistency of what poverty does to people and the health consequences.

With all that in mind, want to know: How do I build a career in global health as a nurse?

First question I ask people is: Do you like camping?

Surprising question? Not really if you've spent time in the field. Most places where there is a critical need for health services and capacity building efforts don't have things like regular running water, consistent electricity, or comfortable places to sleep. If you don't like discomfort, don't do global health.

Once we're past that question, then come the career practicalities. International non-governmental organizations (NGO), the biggest employer of nurses working in global health, like nurses to have a solid set of critical thinking and clinical skills before they hire them. Generally, two years of med-surg or emergency experience will do fine. ICU isn't actually great preparation for global health work because there's too much technology and resources. You have to be able to work without resources and, sometimes, in highly uncontrolled environments. ICU is the opposite of that, so not great preparation.

It is important to note that most NGOs will look more favorably upon you if you've actually been out of your home country before. The last thing any organization wants is someone who committed to 6 months of field work and suddenly finds they don't like it or it's not what they expected. That costs them and their projects lots of time and effort that often cannot be recuperated. So, if you haven't got a passport yet, you'll need to use it.

Another recommendation I make, and one way to get out of the country, is that students try to do a volunteer trip for 2-3 weeks somewhere. Organizations like Unite for Sight have great short term, supervised volunteer experiences where you can try on global health work and see if it is a good fit for you.

One thing you should NEVER do is pay lots of money for a global health experience. What I mean by that is that you shouldn't pay huge additional administrative fees to go observe or gain experience. There are cheaper ways to get exactly the same experience. So pay close attention to the reviews people leave about those programs.

So, you've got a place to get started and can start making a plan. In future posts, I'll cover things like financial planning for when you're heading abroad and long term career development.

Good luck!


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