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What Justifies the Environmental Impact of 1000 Medical Students Flying to Baltimore? The IFMSA General Assembly

David Carroll describes the ups and downs of the recent International Federation of Medical Students Associations General Assembly.

Last month, I was privileged to represent Medsin-UK at the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA) General Assembly (GA). The theme of the general assembly is advocacy and the physician in training; advocacy is something that Medsin-UK personifies through our work in the UK.

As I arrived after 12 hours travel from Dublin to Baltimore, I was greeted by 1000 students speaking 100 languages cramped into 1 hotel lobby, you can imagine the scene, absolute pandemonium. What followed in the week after this first encounter was nothing short of wonderful; it was a week of students, all empowered to create tangible social change to help their future patients and the wider society.

My two personal highlights both happened on the Tuesday of the General Assembly. Firstly, the national member associations of Serbia and Lebanon proposed the removal of a by-law regarding pharmaceutical funding. The by-law stated, “Pharmaceutical sponsoring of General Assemblies and Regional Meetings in the IFMSA should be avoided. If found necessary, explanation and consultation with National Member Organizations should be conducted prior to accepting funding”.

The removal of this by-law would have removed the only binding policy we currently have regarding securing funding from the pharmaceutical industry. Not having this bylaw would open the door to unethical funding within our federation and show a worrying disregard for this important matter.

This proposed bylaw change set in motion an advocacy campaign that completely embodied the spirit of the March Meeting. Twelve national member associations coordinated the campaign and support came from many, sometimes-unexpected sources. As I am the national coordinator of PharmAware-UK, I had to put my global health diplomacy skills to good use, with meetings at all hours to try and come to an agreement before the plenary vote.

All our hard work paid off and the by-law remained in place. In the aftermath of the plenary decision, we have set in motion steps to develop a framework for interaction with the pharmaceutical industry. We hope this will allow for effective and ethical interactions in the future.

Later that day, the IFMSA became the first international representative organization to pass a policy on equal marriage for all persons, regardless of sex, sexuality and gender identity. I think I can speak for everyone in saying that the atmosphere in the venue at this point was electrifying, some attendees even moved to tears.

These two events typify us as an organization of medical students that want nothing but the best for our patients.

Throughout the General Assembly, my colleague in the Standing Committee for Public Health (SCOPH, which is a group for medical students to discuss, learn and act to improve public health), Joseph McArthur and I were fortunate enough to facilitate sessions on advocacy in SCOPH. Our small working group on advocacy had members from across the globe and Joe and I took a different stance in running the working group. Despite coming from a country with a worldwide reputation for advocacy, we decided to step back, purely facilitate and listen. The ideas that we gathered as a group were fantastic and should lead to the development of an “advocacy algorithm” which we hope to use to empower individuals towards advocacy not only in SCOPH but also throughout the IFMSA and beyond.

Despite all this positivity, the GA was not free from controversy, this ranged from the team of officials being unable to make up their mind on their position on pharmaceutical funding (resulting in some harsh words for one poor member of the team of officials from yours truly) and fierce discussion regarding the future of the IFMSA. Notably these were uncertainty on whether the next general assembly in Chile will go ahead and the IFMSA membership status of the Indian national member organization.

The week ended with teary-eyed goodbyes but with international friendships that will last a lifetime. I spent my last few hours in Baltimore before flying to the Medsin Global Health Conference in Glasgow.

My time at the IFMSA general assembly was justified because of the long lasting friendships and collaborations, it give me the chance for intercultural learning on a massive scale, to learn new skills and most importantly the chance to practice new skills, and develop existing skills in diplomacy and advocacy.

If this week has taught me anything, it’s that yes you can survive on two hours sleep a night and that I’ve never been more ready to stand with Medsin-UK and others to reach our goal, health equity for all. Founder of Avaaz, Ricken Patel has said “Often it has been the more educated – university students, [the] middle class – in places like the Philippines or Indonesia that have led revolutions, but those revolutions have then empowered millions more people through education and development“. I feel we are no different.

The IFMSA has the most inspirational, motivated and engaged students the world has to offer and in my opinion, our future is in safe hands.

David Carroll is a third year medical student at Queen’s University Belfast and national coordinator of PharmAware-UK. He can be found on twitter as @davidecarroll.

The author have declared that no competing interests exist.

  1. Hi David, I like your title to this article, I believe you answered your own question by stating that you met many new professionals in your field and experiencing many diverse cultures throughout your week, certainly a must these days.

    Congratulations on being part of the first international representative organization to pass policy on equal marriage – fantastic effort!

    cheers and good luck in your continuing studies


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