Tips for expats working in health care

How does a working mom and physician keep practicing medicine when her husband’s career brings her halfway around the globe? For me, it was an adventure. While it can be challenging, I encourage other physicians to experience the world with their families while still practicing medicine.

As a 14 year family practitioner from Ohio, I suddenly found myself in Qatar with two young children because of my husband’s job. Qatar is a sovereign Arab emirate located in Western Asia and very different from my home in Ohio. I quickly encountered the challenges of living, working, and raising children in a foreign country.

My biggest challenges as a doctor were maintaining my U.S. medical credentialing while living abroad and finding medical work in a new country; these were both important to me as I knew my family would be traveling home to visit at various points each year, and I wanted to practice medicine both at home and while abroad.

While I eventually worked in Qatar and at home in the U.S., I did learn a few lessons along the way. For example, I was able to find a job when I arrived in Qatar, but on my first day, I learned that the medical director was not expecting a foreign doctor who did not speak the local language. Imagine trying to help patients you cannot speak to!

I also worked as a locum tenens physician, one who temporarily fills the duties of another, when I visited the U.S. on breaks so I could work no matter what state I was in.

Other common challenges many health care professional expatriates face include:

  • Extended time, language barriers, and paperwork to get local credentials for any new assignment.
  • A lack of familiar facilities and availability for your specialty.
  • Building trust in the community and with your patients as a new and foreign physician.

Of course, being an expat is not just about work, it is about experiencing a new culture and finding happiness in all aspects of life. For a new expat, I would prescribe a healthy dose of the following:

  • Join networking groups within the expat community and your new neighborhood. It’s a great way to make new connections for everything from play groups to new career opportunities.
  • If you cannot find a job in your new country, consider only working when you visit home on breaks. In the health care field, working as a locum tenens enables you to keep your credentials active and work in any part of the U.S. your family is visiting.
  • Learn about the credentials you will need to practice before making the trip. You might need paperwork from your medical school or current facility when applying for jobs.
  • Create your own job opportunities through volunteer work or even virtual or online sites. A health care background will be invaluable to many groups or businesses, allowing you to continue helping people — but in a new way.
  • Take time to enjoy the experience with your family. Your children will only be young once and you may not live abroad forever, so make the most of the experience. This will also help alleviate any stress you feel about finding employment or working abroad.

If life takes a turn, and you find yourself with a practice full of patients and a family moving overseas, I encourage you to take a chance and become an expat.

Rajka Milanovic Galbraith is a family physician and a locum tenens physician, CompHealth.

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