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Bullet wounds and overnight queues: UK students’ eye-opening US exchange visits

Every year, nursing students from Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen travel to the US on exchange programmes to learn about nursing practice and healthcare delivery in the US.

Every year, nursing students from Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen travel to the US on exchange programmes to learn about nursing practice and healthcare delivery in the US

us

Patients receiving treatment at a temporary makeshift hospital in Tennessee run
by volunteer healthcare professionals for people without health insurance.
 Picture: Getty Images

Seeing how healthcare works in the US firsthand is a ‘once in a lifetime experience’ for UK nursing students, says nursing lecturer Jackie Leith, who co-ordinates exchange programmes at Robert Gordon University (RGU) in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Four nursing students have the opportunity every year to travel from Aberdeen to the University of Tennessee Knoxville, and vice versa, with both sides benefiting from broadening their horizons.

The two-week trip, funded by the second-year students themselves, is now in its fourth year and includes visits to surgical wards, a children’s hospital, a cancer institute and neonatal unit.

A separate exchange of two students, run in partnership with Houston Baptist University in Texas, has been going for 23 years.

Healthcare contrast

Among the attractions of crossing the Atlantic is a better appreciation of the NHS. ‘The students leave here thinking everything will be all singing and dancing in the US,’ says Ms Leith. ‘But while their equipment is first class, the students also see those who can’t get care.’

This year’s group visiting Tennessee, who travelled in July, went to a remote clinic for people with no healthcare insurance. ‘Around 800 people had camped and queued overnight to see a healthcare professional,’ says Ms Leith. ‘Our students were overwhelmed by this, and felt so glad for our own system. It had such a big impact that one of them is now fundraising for the clinic.’

One of the students, Megan Walls, said: ‘The big thing I noticed was comparing our free healthcare with the way things work with insurance in the US. But there is a lot of great technology there, which is a step up from us.’

Cultural differences

There are key cultural differences too, with guns – and gun crime – much more prevalent in both Texas and Tennessee. ‘When one of the Houston students spent a day in an emergency department he was really surprised that there were no gunshot wounds,’ says Ms Leith.

In terms of how healthcare is delivered, the UK is more person-centred, and Ms Leith says relationships and communication between the different professions also seems better in the UK. But US nursing students are doing more clinical evaluation of patients by the end of their course, she says.

This year’s Houston exchange students will be going there following the widespread flooding after tropical storm Harvey. ‘It’s an unexpected opportunity to see how healthcare and the community comes back after a natural disaster,’ says Ms Leith.


Lynne Pearce is a freelance health journalist 

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