Australia’s idealistic medical students: an under-exploited development opportunity?

Every year about 300 Australian medical students flock to the annual Australian Medical Students’ Association Global Health Conference, first run in 2005. The conference’s aim is to ‘fulfil the desire of medical students to discuss broader issues relevant to global health’. What is driving such a well-organised and widely-based interest in global health among medical students? We decided to conduct a survey of  participants at the latest conference, held in Hobart last year.

We surveyed 97 students, around a third of total conference participants, either via iPad or through an online survey. Three-quarters of respondents were female. 71% were undergraduates, the rest were postgrads.

For most respondents (62%), this was not the first Global Health Conference that they have attended, suggesting more than a passing interest in global health and development.  91% said they were interested or very interested in international development. 70% had already visited a developing country. 40% traced their interest back to this travel experience, suggesting that the explosion in foreign travel is one of the factors driving the growing interest in development in Australia.

In response to our key question, 77% indicated that they would like to work in a developing country. Most had a pretty vague interest – some 57% of those with an interest were only willing to say that they wanted to work overseas at some point in their career. But the other 43% wanted to work within five years of graduating. Most (59%) were also unsure of how long they wanted to work overseas. 28% said they wanted to work for two years or less.

The medical students clearly lacked information. 61% were unsure of whether there were enough opportunities for young doctors to work in developing countries. 73% said there wasn’t enough information. 57% indicated that their studies do not sufficiently prepare them to work overseas.

The AMSA National Convention attracts about 1,200 students. The global health conference attracts 300. A rough inference would be that one in four medical students has an interest in development, and one in five (77% of 25%) has enough interest to want to go overseas. There were about 3,300 medical graduates in 2013. If it is one-in-five, then more than 600 of these graduates have an interest in working overseas. That’s an impressive number by any account.

But where will they go? This document, prepared in partnership with AMSA, is a good primer for what to expect and how to prepare for work overseas, but it provides less advice on where to look for jobs abroad. Australia’s universities are increasingly offering semester-long internships  overseas, and these might lead to further opportunities after graduation. There are a few large NGOs, such as MSF and Red Cross, who will take doctors, but positions are limited.

What of Australia’s various volunteer programs? They seem to offer very few medical volunteer roles. Of the 104 AYAD assignments currently on offer, only 12 are listed in health, and only one for a doctor. And there are currently only six health opportunities available through the AVID stream (out of 45), again with only one position for a doctor.

We’re not suggesting that Australia become another Cuba, sending doctors overseas en masse. But volunteering is a relatively inexpensive option. Giving Australian doctors more opportunities to volunteer overseas could be good for poor people, and good for us.

In the meantime, let’s celebrate the idealism and internationalism of so many of our medical students.

Stephen Howes is Director of the Development Policy Centre. Jonathan Pryke is a Research Officer at the Centre. You can view the questionnaire here [pdf], and access a spreadsheet of the results here [xlsx]. Thanks to Matilda Mackay-Sim and her AMSA colleagues for their cooperation and assistance in the running of the survey.

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Jonathan Pryke

Jonathan Pryke worked at the Development Policy Centre from 2011, and left in mid-2015 to join the Lowy Institute, where he is now Director of the Pacific Islands Program. He has a Master of Public Policy/Master of Diplomacy from Crawford School of Public Policy and the College of Diplomacy, ANU.

Stephen Howes

Stephen Howes is Director of the Development Policy Centre and Professor of Economics at the Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University.


  • It is good to inform young doctors that there are various opportunities waiting for them in other countries. They can help poor people and enhance their skills as well.

  • Thank you for the interesting post. I too salute the idealism and motivation of medical students, many of whom genuinely came into medicine to ‘make a difference’ and are keen to do this in a global context. Having been one of these medical students in the UK and devoted my student days to setting up opportunities (in the form of Medsin for students to follow their global health passions I have great sympathy with your point. I do also recognise the complexities and dangers and think it is important to come up with solutions that strengthen both the training path of the students but also ensure that any initiatives fit with development best practice. I have seen wonderful student/junior doctor projects and disastrous ones. The best cases are when the enthusiasm of the medical student body can work with strong long-term projects to bring energy and committed workforce to support an ongoing project, whilst also giving the student/doctor an experience that fits into a recognised training path in their own country. The worse cases I have seen have placed the volunteer in danger, or been damaging to the community in which they were placed. The other danger is that the student/doctor can feel very lost on return as the establishment does not recognise their experience.

    I think it is vital to work with the medical education establishment to ensure that there is plenty of opportunity within the curriculum to learn about global health and development, but also to work with Colleges to ensure that these kinds of experiences are valued and even recognised as training. This may help the student/doctor not to suffer from the confusion of their global health interests not fitting with the constraints of medical career paths. Also, if partnerships can develop between the medical establishment in Australia and institutions in developing counties it provides the kind of bilateral capacity building that is ideal.

    In my junior doctor days we set up the UCL Institute for Global Health ( ) specifically to provide education in global health for undergraduate medical students. It would be great to see more undergraduate global health teaching developing, as a core part of the medical curriculum, to support the incredible motivated students that you describe.

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