Why International Experience is Essential for Nurses

by Tracey Long

Learning about diverse people, cultures, belief systems, and worldviews is essential for nurses to be effective in a people-centered profession. Afterall, nursing is a delicate balance between the art and science of medicine. Nurses who understand more about people and their varying lifestyles can be more effective in helping people through illness toward wellness. Research proves that nursing students and nurses who travel internationally increase in self-confidence and cultural competence skills, so why not take the opportunity to up your professional game by becoming a nurse volunteer abroad?

Volunteer nurse in Colombia taking a child's vitals

There are many nursing skills that are gained through international travel that can improve a nurse’s knowledge, communication, and confidence. Nurses can become culturally aware, sensitive, and competent though experiencing another culture in an unfamiliar environment. Although nurses who work in diverse communities in their home city will inherently be exposed to and learn about other cultures, those who travel internationally will gain first hand knowledge about other people in their own native settings.

Philanthropy combined with international travel, such as through volunteering in nursing abroad, only exemplifies the professional and personal benefits of international experience for nurses. Here are just four of the many benefits that volunteering abroad in nursing can provide any future nurse with:

Improved Cultural Awareness

When there is a lack of culturally competent care from a health care provider, poor patient outcomes may occur. Language, food preferences, and cultural beliefs that impact healthcare practices as well as physical variations among ethnic groups, which may alter pharmacological effects, all impact the health status of individual patients.

Without the knowledge and understanding of cultural influences, nurses may miss important cues into human health and behavior.

Hundreds of anecdotal stories exist revealing how nurses have missed important information because they were not aware of cultural preferences and the quality of care suffered. International experience can help nurses broaden their cultural experiences and knowledge, to decrease the chance of such mishaps occurring. For example, many nurses that travel internationally, to countries that do not speak English as a first language, gain a new appreciation for the confusion felt by non-English speaking patients in their own country. Through shared experiences, nurses become better able to relate to their patients. 

There are many more specific examples of cultural influence affecting the quality of healthcare provided by nurses. For example, a nurse may stop patient education after misjudging a native American patient as disinterested because the patient looks down diverting her eyes, which is actually demonstrating respect in the native culture, as opposed to disinterest. A nurse may mistakenly judge bright red circles on a Chinese child’s back as physical abuse, when it is actually temporary marks left from the common Chinese home remedy of cupping, which encourages healing energy flow in traditional Chinese medicine. Lastly, a nurse who is not culturally aware may make the error of giving a native Hispanic patient diet instructions that don’t include tortillas and beans, which may result in poor adherence as the patient feels the diet plan is irrelevant to their cultural traditions and food preferences.

Culture matters, and knowing about different cultures matters, especially in the field of nursing. 

Increased Cultural Sensitivity

If a nurse is untrained in assessing, evaluating, and adjusting care plans to meet needs of diverse cultures, nursing care and treatment may be compromised. Many nurses state they feel inadequate and uncomfortable in providing culturally appropriate and sensitive care to clients of an ethnicity different from their own, which may compound the problem of disparate care for minorities. Research has also found that graduating nursing students often do not feel prepared to work in a multicultural society.

Cultural competence training has been proposed as a major solution to this issue. However, one other strategy is to promote international travel for nurses and nursing students, which can be particularly impactful in the form of medical volunteer service in developing countries. In fact, many reviews of of cultural competence training interventions for health care providers concluded that international travel makes positive improvements in nurses’ knowledge, attitude, and skills.

More specialized cultural competence programs, that focus on the skills and strategies necessary for addressing language barriers or cultural norms in a clinical setting, can produce even greater positive attitudinal changes among nursing students. Volunteering abroad for nurses, or international travel of any kind for that matter, can be seen as one of the most unique forms of cultural competence training.

International volunteer experiences promote cultural self-awareness, sensitivity, flexibility, and develop the ability to avoid stereotyping among nursing students.
Volunteer nurse in Colombia with an elderly patient

Exposure to Regional Diseases & Health Conditions

Traveling internationally allows nurses and nursing students to see physical living conditions and diseases not usually encountered in their home setting. Through becoming a nurse volunteer abroad in South America, for example, students can see and treat Chikungunya, a disease carried by mosquitos nesting in standing water, as it is extremely common in impoverished communities after the tropical, rainy season. Other physical diseases unseen in the United States, that nurses may be able to work directly with as a nurse volunteer abroad, include polio, Dengue fever, osteomalacia, Raynaud’s syndrome, and many other rare conditions.

As a nurse volunteer abroad, nurses and nursing students can not only learn about unique or regional diseases, they will also be able to learn more about the natural plant remedies used by natives in the area. Gaining knowledge of both diseases and their treatments abroad, will again increase cultural understanding among nurses.

Deeper Understanding of the Interaction Between Environment & Health

Through many opportunities to volunteer abroad in nursing, students can make personal home visits, where they may get the chance to assess the sanitation of outhouses, rain barrels commonly used for drinking water, and safety of wood burning stoves, which they would never see in the United States. Being able to make the visual connection between the use of a smoky wood burning stove in a one room home and the resultant chest congestion, dry cough, and red eyes seen in the clinic is especially powerful.

Nurses who travel internationally, and especially those who volunteer abroad in nursing, can learn more about the human condition and power of environmental factors that influence health, disease, and wellness. Even traveling and volunteering abroad in more developed countries, such as in Western Europe, can help nurses understand risk factors for disease caused by lifestyle choices too. 

The End Result: More Effective Nurses

Beyond the life of souvenirs and fading photos, international volunteer experience will enhance nurses’ professional skills, communication strategies, and cultural insights, allowing them to become more effective with the patients they serve no matter where they choose to practice. And this is why international travel is essential for nurses. The real danger in traveling internationally, is wanting to stay forever.

This article was contributed by International Service Learning (ISL), a non-governmental organization that has been offering volunteers practical experience through medical, education, and community enrichment programs for over 20 years. ISL offers short-term opportunities throughout the year; no experience or certifications needed unless specifically stated.