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Global health draws students to Portugal for a MayX

Students spent three weeks at Portugal’s largest hospital for the “Health and Medicine in the Global Context” MayX.

Last updated June 4, 2024

By Clinton Colmenares, Director of News and Media Strategy

During his first week in Lisbon, Portugal, Kobby Frempong ’26, a Furman University student, donned surgical scrubs and watched in an OR as a neurosurgeon spent most of the day resecting a tumor from the brain of a 19-year-old woman.

“I’m loving it. It’s amazing,” Frempong said by Zoom from the capital city.

The biology major and data analytics minor is one of 20 students in Lisbon on a Furman MayX, Health and Medicine in the Global Context. The three-week course is a joint project of the Department of Health Sciences and Furman’s Institute for the Advancement of Community Health (IACH). It gives students a front-row seat to clinical medicine in a country with a state-funded healthcare system, where health is a human right. Several health indicators in Portugal, including life expectancy, place the country among the best in the world, while per-capita spending is among the lowest.

Meghan Slining, associate professor of health sciences at Furman, and Rebecca Redman from IACH led the students on the three-week course to Lisbon’s Hospital Santa Maria. The largest in the country, Santa Maria is publicly funded and serves three medical schools.

The students spent a week in a different clinical rotation. After neurosurgery, Frempong shadowed internal medicine physicians, then orthopedists. Other students rotated through ophthalmology, psychiatry, general surgery, pathology and more clinical areas. “Every day can look different for the students,” Slining said.

This is the third time Furman has made the trip. The competition to go is stiff. Eighty students applied this year for the 20 slots.

Portugal is the chosen destination because it’s the most affordable among the overseas options for this kind of education, and Furman is committed to making the trip “as accessible as possible to as many students as possible,” Slining said. While the students could probably observe clinical rotations in the United States, or even in Greenville, South Carolina, being in a country where everything is different makes students “start thinking about the world and their place in the world in a different way,” she said.

Portuguese officials encourage foreign students in hopes that spending time in their healthcare system might open minds to new ways of delivering medicine that will help them be better physicians or researchers, “or just attend to their patients in a more caring and empathetic and compassionate way,” Slining said.

Slining hopes students take home with them is a better understanding of the demands of clinical medicine. Burnout is high in Portugal, where there’s a universal understanding that healthcare is a right and physicians make about $2,500 a month, according to GlassDoor. It’s also high in the United States, where the average monthly salary for a doctor is almost $29,000.

“I deeply care about the health of our globe, so I deeply care about helping to prepare students to really know what they want to do and why they want to do it and to provide them some of those skills so they’re less surprised by their experience,” Slining said.

She wants students to ask themselves if working long hours in high-pressure situations is what they really want, or to begin asking themselves if there’s another way they can help people. She also wants them to understand “the broader perspective of health,” like social safety nets they observe in Portugal.

Students have a lot of responsibilities on the trip, not the least of which is learning their way around a city of half a million people where signs are written in an unknown language. Then they have to find their way around a large urban hospital, and conduct themselves professionally in front of physicians, nurses and patients, sometimes during life-altering moments.

“I’m super impressed with how well our students are adapting and navigating this experience,” Slining said.

For Frempong, the MayX in Portugal helped round out his medical science experience. Last summer he did research on campus with Adi Dubash, associate professor of biology. In Lisbon, he loved seeing the clinical side of neuroscience and internal medicine, but his orthopedics rotation the third week might have topped them both. He scrubbed in, like the surgeon, and stood next to the operating table while the orthopedist mended a patient. Then he spent time in clinic as the doctor saw patients.

“During regular consultations, I saw him administer the highest form of professionalism and care to his patients,” Frempong said. Once, the surgeon turned to him and said, “…and all that is free.”

Frempong was heading toward a doctoral degree to do research, now he’s considering adding medical school, combining science with clinical experience he witnessed in Portugal.

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Clinton Colmenares
Director of News and Media Strategy