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Medical Students Head to Israel Intent on Improving Global Health for Underserved Populations

By Meredith Finnin

Entrance to the Ben Gurion University campus located in Israel's Negev desert region.
(Photo by Aviva Zohar)

While the world is focused on the conflict in Israel and many are canceling or delaying travel to the area, 20 medical students from the United States recently ventured to the quiet city of Beer Sheva, in Israel's Negev desert region. There, they will begin training for careers as physicians in the field of global health, with the goal of learning how to improve medical care for underserved populations throughout the world.

The students are beginning their first year of study in the Ben Gurion University of the Negev M.D. Program in International Health and Medicine in collaboration with Columbia University Health Sciences (BGU-CU M.D.), the first medical degree program specifically designed to train doctors for the practice of international health and medicine, a field that is rapidly emerging as an integral component of global stability and development.

The BGU-CU M.D. program is an innovative joint venture between Columbia's Health Sciences Division and Ben Gurion University. The program's curriculum encompasses humanitarian emergencies and relief medicine, refugee health, and preventive medicine for diverse populations. In addition to the basic medical sciences and clinical rotations taught in American medical schools, BGU-CU M.D. students also learn about cross-cultural medicine, healthcare economics, epidemiology, bio-statistics, nutrition, and environmental health. Incorporated within all of the BGU-CU M.D. courses is an emphasis on preventive medicine and population health.

"This program offers future physicians a one-of-a-kind opportunity to learn about cross-cultural medicine and global health. Israel's Negev desert region is populated by immigrants from Ethiopia, North Africa, and the former Soviet Union, as well as indigenous Bedouin, so it is an excellent place for medical students to develop the skills they'll need to work with diverse populations both abroad and in the United States," said Richard J. Deckelbaum, BGU-CU M.D. program director and director of the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia.

Ben Gurion and Columbia joined forces in 1997 to address the growing need for physicians who understand the impact of factors such as economics, environment, religion and politics on the health of individuals as well as entire populations. Issues such as the re-emergence of infectious disease, the rapid spread of chronic and lifestyle-related diseases beyond the industrialized world to developing nations, and the inability of governments and international health organizations to respond to international health crises in an era of rapid globalization gave rise to the BGU-CU M.D. program.

A creek runs in front of the Zlotowski Student Center.

The first three years of the BGU-CU M.D. program are taught in English at Ben Gurion's Joyce and Irving Goldman Medical School in Beer Sheva. During the fourth year, students may take up to five months of clinical electives at Columbia and a two-month externship is required in either India, Nepal, Israel, Ethiopia, Kenya or at an approved international site.

Graduates will have the skills to treat individuals and the knowledge to prevent disease and promote health within different populations. They will be prepared to work equally effectively within governmental or non-governmental organizations or in multicultural societies like the United States. This May, the innovative program produced its first group of new physicians.

Currently, citizens of five continents are enrolled in the BGU-CU M.D. program. They hail from places as diverse as the United States, Rwanda, Kosovo and Tibet.

"Our students are an exceptionally mature and committed group. They have widely diverse backgrounds, yet share a common commitment to improving global health," says Carmi Margolis, the BGU-CU M.D. program director at Ben Gurion University.

Applications for the class entering in Fall 2003 are now being accepted. Additional information on the BGU-CU M.D. Program is available on the program's Web site, or by contacting the New York Admissions Office at (212) 305-9587, or bgcu-md@columbia.edu.

Published: Sep 16, 2002
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002

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