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Studying abroad as a Pre-Med: How cultural immersion helps us grow as future physicians

Our values, our thinking processes, and our priorities are often a product of culture, and they vary drastically between populations. As a first generation Vietnamese-American born to immigrant parents, I thought I was no stranger to cultural differences–”a mosaic of values,” I had thought. While growing up, I did indeed deal with discrepancies such as the unequal importance of certain holidays, but these two very different cultures are a part of me and as a result, inherently familiar. I was wholly unprepared for the culture shock of living in a foreign country. Having never been to Spain before, I felt like a fish out of water. It took time and genuine effort to truly immerse myself in the Spanish culture.

The understanding of cultural differences is easier said than done, but it adds much value to anyone’s perspective. Specifically for pre-med students and future physicians, cultural sensitivity is necessary in effective communication between any healthcare provider and patient as culture can be a contributing factor in many health issues. For example, the Spanish generally follow a healthy Mediterranean diet, including high consumption of healthy fats such as olive oil and fish; however, there is not as much of an exercise culture. These cultural norms differ than those of Americans and can be important in understanding a patient’s health.

There is a huge immigrant population in California and any level of fluency in a foreign language, especially Spanish, can help break down language barriers. While my organization, the Hep B Project, mainly targets Asian and Pacific Islander immigrants as this population is disproportionately at risk for hepatitis B, having a huge health disparity in this population, we interact with many Latino patients as well, as our partner street clinics serve a large Latino population. During my term as Clinic Coordinator, I noticed that language barriers tend to deter patients from even speaking with us and for those that do work with us, the communication barriers often diminish our quality of care. Having experienced my own miscommunication and confusion while ordering food and navigating the streets in a foreign city, I can only imagine how many obstacles and barriers immigrant patients face while seeking healthcare in America.

While healthcare providers cannot be expected to know the language of and discrepancies between all cultures, firsthand exposure to these differences help break down ingrained preconceived notions about other people’s lifestyles. Being culturally sensitive is one step closer to bridging the gap between a healthcare provider’s and a patient’s values. This not only will make a patient more comfortable and receptive, but ultimately lead to better health care. As a student aiming to enter the health field, studying abroad is an exhilarating opportunity to gain exposure to different worldly values.

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