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Wednesday Jun 25, 2014

Follow the North Star: Global Health Is Focus of New Wonca Group

A growing number of medical students, family medicine residents and new physicians are interested in pursuing global health experiences. In fact, more than 30 percent of U.S. medical students completed a global health rotation in each of the past four years.

Polaris, the new and future physicians movement for Wonca North America, was one of the topics discussed when I attended the winter meeting of the College of Family Physicians of Canada's Section of Residents. 

In the United States, we are fortunate to have structured, well-developed clinical rotations and residency programs for our family physicians-in-training, but in many other countries, recent medical school graduates are often faced with the prospect of building their own family medicine experience. To address this need, the Europe region of the World Organization of Family Doctors, or Wonca, formed the first new physicians organization -- referred to as a young doctors' movement -- in 2005 to focus on networking and providing a platform to connect physicians across borders. Other Wonca regions have since followed this example -- all except the North America region.

The 2013 Wonca World Conference in Prague triggered renewed discussions about establishing a new and future physician movement in North America. Members of the AAFP, the College of Family Physicians of Canada and the Caribbean College of Family Physicians have worked together to establish the movement's framework, including its charter, name, logo and a governance structure. On May 19 -- World Family Doctor Day -- Wonca North America announced the creation of its new and future physicians movement, Polaris, to provide an avenue for the exchange of ideas and actual observational experiences in different countries.

Polaris is not simply a platform for launching medical mission work. Rather, it is a comprehensive forum for global health. In many of the discussions leading up to its formation, the difference between mission work and global health was emphasized, and organizers envisioned one possible goal of the program to be changing the perspective that medical missions are global health to the reality that medical missions are only a small part of global health.

Although mission work is often how physicians gain global health experience, family doctors practice in all parts of the globe, and the vast differences that exist among medical systems, available resources, patient populations and disease processes offer amazing learning opportunities that can enhance physicians' work in their own communities and offices.

A global view of patient care is becoming more necessary as both our demographics change and our health systems adapt, and family medicine is the natural home for that viewpoint. Two-thirds of family medicine residency programs now offer international rotations or electives, and even those without formal programs teach the skills and population management competencies needed to work in any community, which produces physicians who have interests and/or abilities well-suited for global health delivery.

Aside from skills development, simply connecting with family doctors in other countries provides a perspective that often helps open our eyes to new solutions and processes we can then use in our own programs and offices. For example, I was fortunate to be invited to attend the winter meeting of the College of Family Physicians of Canada's Section of Residents, where each residency program in Canada is represented. Polaris was simply a glimmer of an idea at that point, but the collaborative effort it represented was well-received.

Canada's postgraduate medical education system is much like that in the United States, but even so, these residents shared our interest in developing a more comprehensive patient approach. Canadians have rural patient populations that make some of our rural sites in the United States appear metropolitan. Not surprisingly, their medical education curriculum includes impressive didactic and skills sessions to meet the needs of students and residents who plan to work in remote settings. I came back to my residency program with ideas for improving our own training based simply on talking with Canadian residents. Imagine the progress we could make in our training if we were able to experience the many cultural variations and nuances that characterize family medicine across continents.

WONCA's young doctors' movements have already established exchange programs to enable their members to participate in observational experiences. Polaris could provide an infrastructure for setting up exchanges to and from North America.

      Polaris is still being developed, and much remains to be decided. So if you are a family physician who is interested in global health -- whether you're a seasoned veteran or someone looking for a first global health experience -- take advantage of the many upcoming opportunities to be part of the discussion

  • At the National Conference of Family Medicine Residents and Medical Students, Polaris will be discussed during the global health networking session, which is scheduled for Aug. 8 in Kansas City, Mo.
  • Attendees at the Family Medicine Global Health Workshop scheduled for Sept. 11-13 in San Diego, can see a presentation by representatives of the Vasco da Gama Movement, which is the European group for new and future family physicians. The event also will feature a networking session where Polaris will be a topic of discussion.
  • An international networking session also will be held during this year's AAFP Assembly, which is scheduled for Oct. 21-25 in Washington.

Kimberly Becher, M.D., is the resident member of the AAFP Board of Directors.

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