Global health

How to do an international rotation

Katherine Marciniec, DO, shares tips on finding an international rotation and navigating COVID restrictions with different countries.


For those ambitious, adventure-seeking medical students who are itching to travel after dominating their audition rotations or crushing their boards, an international rotation may be the perfect opportunity to explore a new language, a different culture, and a health care system outside of the United States. It may also be a great opportunity to fine-tune a language that you may be speaking with your patients in the future. I did my international rotation in Colombia, along with a virtual rotation in Vietnam. Both helped expand my knowledge not only in the medical field, but also in other cultures and ways of life.

Here are some tips on finding an international rotation and navigating COVID restrictions:

  1. Contact your medical school’s global health office – This will be your best resource to discover any opportunities for an international rotation!
  • Do your own research – If your school does not have a global health office or you would like more options, you can look up independent organizations that offer international rotations for medical students and coordinate with your clinical advisor.

Some reputable options include: DOCARE International and Child Family Health International.

Some other organizations that are affiliated with my former university (Des Moines University), but may be open to accepting other medical students, include: Hillside Healthcare in Belize and Makerere University in Uganda.

Additionally, other examples that I found on my own accord include: Bridges to Community, Global Medical Brigades, Institute for International Medicine and Medical Electives Network. A list of some other organizations can be found here.

  • COVID restrictions – The international rotation site you are interested in should notify you if there are any COVID restrictions related to their country. In my case, Colombia allowed me to travel to their country so long as I was either vaccinated or had a negative COVID test. These regulations are all country-dependent and, as we know, constantly changing.
Dr. Marciniec in Bogota, Colombia, February 2022.

If an international option is not possible in person, consider doing a virtual international rotation. This may not sound ideal as the main purpose of doing an international rotation is to physically step into a new country and gain experience out of your comfort zone, but it may still be worth pursuing a virtual rotation. Again, this may be coordinated via your school’s Global Health office, the links above, or via VSLO/VSAS if they offer any options.

In addition to going to Colombia for an international rotation, I also did a virtual Vietnam Research Rotation where I collaborated with Vietnamese students to write a research paper. Not only did I still get to meet students from another country, but I also had the opportunity to participate in a virtual food tour, have a virtual coffee session with Vietnamese students, and even learn some Vietnamese words.

  • Be flexible – I had originally applied to complete an international rotation in Thailand and it was approved. Unfortunately, the rotation was cancelled at the last minute due to COVID restrictions in that country. I was asked if I wanted to do an international rotation elsewhere that was still accepting students despite COVID.

I was initially hesitant as I had my mind set on Thailand, but I eventually became open-minded to exploring another country such as Colombia and thinking about the benefits of doing a rotation over there instead (e.g., forcing me to re-learn Spanish). Ultimately, I am SO glad I did, as I do not think that I would have traveled to Colombia at all if this rotation had not been offered to me.

Bonus tips (when you actually go to your international rotation):

  • Learn the language – This one may seem obvious, but make sure to brush up on your basic communication skills in that language! Whether it be daily Duolingo or a private tutor session each week, a little preparation goes a long way. One helpful tip that has stuck with me is that you do not need to speak perfectly in the language, so don’t get caught up in the details – many times your message will come across and you will be understood.
  • Stay with a host family – If you have the option of staying with a host family in that country – DO SO! I cannot emphasize enough the benefits of staying with a host family. Not only will they (most likely) provide you with food and a comfortable place to stay, but they may also accommodate you with some modes of transportation, be your tour guide, and be a helpful resource for questions you have. Most importantly, they may become a lifelong friend.
Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Related reading:

Audition rotations: Successful residents share 6+ tips

Making the most of clinical rotations during COVID

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