Five ways to improve international student healthcare when they transition to university
Photo of Dominique Thompson, Former UK university GP, author, TEDx speaker

 


Dr Dominique Thompson

 

 

In almost twenty years of being a UK university campus doctor, I had the pleasure of meeting thousands of international students. I loved chatting with them, hearing about their lives, and trying to support them as best I could through some challenging times.

Transition to university for international students can be extra challenging

As a university doctor, I recognised that international students had to manage barriers that their home counterparts didn’t, as well as managing all the usual ups and downs of transitioning from school to university. I’ll be discussing this topic at the CIS Mental Health & Well-being Workshop on 23 November. During my session, I’ll examine the challenges of transitioning from an international school to universities worldwide, share anonymised case histories, and suggest practical tips for preparing students before they move to university.

So, what’s this blog about?

One aspect of my workshop presentation which has particular interest to me as a doctor is that of ‘Health Culture Shock’.

In this blog, I share how this unique challenge for international school students has practical implications for the healthcare they receive and can directly impact on their physical and mental health. I also offer five specific recommendations for helping students to look after their physical and mental health when studying abroad.

What is ‘Health Culture Shock’?

We talk a lot about ‘culture shock’, the anxiety and uncertainty created by experiencing a new culture, language, weather, food, and behaviours.

Still, we don’t talk enough about the clash of health cultures that can occur in the doctor’s consulting room (or Emergency Department) in other countries and cultures.

Working with students from all over the world for almost two decades (and being half French myself) has given me a fascinating first-hand experience of difficulties that can arise when talking to students about their health.

There are potential risks to students’ health if their health context, language, and beliefs differ significantly from the understanding of health in another country where they choose to study.

That’s not to say that any perspective is ‘right or wrong’; they can just be very different. Misunderstandings can occur and delays in diagnoses can be a risk. Religion can also play a part in health beliefs.

Illustration of a female therapist and make student patient sitting in arm chairs talking

Examples in real life

Examples of gaps in understanding that I encountered included;

  • use of different medications
  • use of homeopathy as a standard approach in the home country
  • contextualisation of symptoms using religious beliefs
  • lack of any language or words for mental health issues
  • expectation of a ‘paternalistic’ approach from medical professionals (‘the doctor makes the decisions’), whereas in countries like the UK, there is a ‘patient-centred approach’ where the patient is much more involved in decision-making.

These different expectations all made our consultations more difficult, although I was always keen to help the student as best I could.

So how can we help?

I will discuss all of these and more in the workshop. In the meantime, here are my Top Five Tips for helping your students get the most from healthcare overseas whilst maintaining their physical and mental health at university. I have also created two free Top Tips checklists for parents and new students before going to university.

1.      Plan ahead and be prepared

If your student has had any health issues at all, they should take a printout or summary from their home health care teams and make sure their new doctor has access to a list of their diagnoses, medications, and therapies. It might need to be translated. It can be worth looking up whether the medications they are on will be available in the new country. Make no assumptions. Bring a two-month minimum supply of medication and plan for future prescriptions.

2.      Register with a doctor

It’s helpful to locate the medical centre with which the university may have a link. In the UK, for example, we strongly recommend ‘registering’ (signing up) in the first week to ensure that help is rapidly available (it’s free) if the student becomes unwell or worried about their health. Most UK universities have a local medical team that they recommend to students, where the doctors (called GPs—General Practitioners) will be more familiar with student life, medical certification, and university processes.

3.      Discuss the concept of mental or psychological health

One of the biggest barriers to overseas students seeking help for mental health issues is the lack of background knowledge or language to describe it. If a situation deteriorates and reaches crisis point, others might need to call for help, e.g., flatmates or university staff or faculty. The student can experience psychological feelings of overwhelm, shame and embarrassment by the involvement of others.

To reduce the risk of problems escalating, it is very helpful to start early conversations at school about mental health and well-being. This challenges stigma and gives students the language to use about emotions and behaviours. It may not be easy, but it will help enormously if they struggle later on.

Try talking about; feelings and moods, what is normal, when to worry and when to get help. Reassure them that talking about one’s emotional life is acceptable in many countries and will not be judged. Mention that physical symptoms can be caused by our emotions (e.g., palpitations, headaches). Getting help early is better than reaching crisis point.

4.      Make a Personal Well-being Plan

Spend time before students leave school to get them thinking about things they can do every day to stay well—to counter homesickness, stay healthy, eat well and exercise.

Their Personal Well-being Plan should include sleep, of course, but also little treats and seeing friends in person, not just online. Having a routine and structure like this to fall back on when they arrive will help them to overcome some of the ‘bumps in the road’ of living and studying in a new country and culture.

5.      Create a list of reliable and credible resources

There are fantastic apps and websites out there to support overseas students. They can also get lost in a sea of poor quality or commercial products. Here are some resources created by experts (all of those listed, except the books, are free!)

The International Student App

Student Minds Transitions

Dr Dom’s free Top Tips

Student Health App

Great British Mag website (for UK support)

Blogs at True Student

What’s Up with Everyone website by Aardman Animation

The Student Wellbeing Series by Dr Dominique Thompson

CIS also provides events and resources regarding university transition, which are accessible to members via the CIS Community portal.

 

I hope this is helpful and practical because, as a doctor, I have always been about trying to be useful!

Come learn more with me!

I very much look forward to meeting workshop participants for further discussion at the workshop from 22–24 November and thank you for everything you do to help your students prepare for life after school.

 

Mental Health & Well-being Workshop

22–24 November 2022 | Virtual

Learn how to embed a positive culture and create psychological safety for your community of students, staff, and faculty. You’ll be guided by experts in the field as you explore ways to empower and actively engage your community as they face everyday and emerging challenges. The sessions will be available on-demand in the weeks following so you can catch up or view them again at your own convenience.

 

 


Dr Dominique Thompson is a former UK university doctor/GP, author, TEDx speaker

 

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