UAlbany Summer: Hands-On Learning in an Italian Hospital

Four female students wearing white medical jackets and green lanyards with nametags stand in a sunlit hospital hallway. All are smiling. Part of a stretcher is visible at left.
Haley Boom (far right) stands with other students participating in the Doctors in Italy Fellowship Program in Bologna, Italy. (Photo provided)

ALBANY, N.Y. (Aug. 29, 2023) — Haley Boom is a junior at the University at Albany, majoring in Human Biology with a minor in Italian. This summer, she traveled to Bologna, Italy, to take part in the Doctors in Italy Fellowship Program, an opportunity for undergraduate students to shadow doctors and learn about Italy’s healthcare system.

Over the five-week program, Boom gained firsthand hospital experience observing healthcare providers at work in the specialty areas of dermatology, otolaryngology, cardiology, ophthalmology and oncology. Upon returning home, Boom shared details of the program and reflections on her experience. 

How did you get involved in the Doctors in Italy Fellowship Program?

I first heard about the Doctors in Italy Fellowship Program through the pre-health advisors on campus. After doing thorough research, I thought that the program was a perfect fit for my future career goals in the medical field.

The Doctors in Italy Fellowship Program allows college students the opportunity to look at healthcare and the healthcare system from a new perspective. One of the best parts of the program is that you can customize it toward your specific interests. There are programs in Rome, Milan, Florence, Genoa, Bologna and Ferrara, with each hospital having access to different specialties for students to shadow. Each week of the program is equivalent to roughly 20 hours of clinical shadowing.

You spent five weeks in Italy, logging 100 hours of clinical shadowing; what was that experience like?

For most of the program, I lived and worked as one of five students from various colleges and universities throughout the U.S. and other countries. We were based at the Sant’Orsola-Malpighi Polyclinic in Bologna, which is the largest district general hospital in Italy. We were housed in a modern apartment complex that was a quick walk and bus ride to the hospital.

While shadowing healthcare providers at the hospital, I was able to watch and work with doctors from five different specialties: dermatology, otolaryngology, cardiology, ophthalmology and oncology. Despite not being able to touch the patients directly, we were able to gain an in-depth understanding of everything that we saw, as the doctors would explain what was happening and teach us healthcare skills such as how to read an EKG and properly scrub in for surgery. Additionally, many of the medical students and doctors in Italy would communicate with us in English during surgical procedures so that we could gain a complete understanding of the surgery.

Of your five rotations, did you have a favorite specialty?

During my time in each specialty, I liked different aspects of each, such as the patient connections we had in cardiology and the hands-on nature of dermatology. But my favorite specialty was otolaryngology. On our first day of the rotation, we were in the emergency room for the ENT department and got to witness several endoscopies and see the vocal cords move. I chose to spend the last three days of our shadowing week in the department’s operating room. We witnessed several tumor resections of the throat and ear. On our last day, we got to watch as they removed tumors from a person's throat and used a tendon from the calf to reconstruct the area of the throat where the tumors had been. The experience was enhanced by great providers that explained everything to us, including a medical student who showed us how to read the chart for all the planned surgeries in a day and explained complex medical procedures in a way we could understand.

What was the most important thing you learned from this experience?

One of the most valuable things that I learned from experiencing healthcare in another country was how in Italy, being in the hospital, you felt like a part of the community. All of the doctors, nurses and students that we interacted with in the hospital really took us under their wings. They showed us how the Italian healthcare system operated and were all equally as inquisitive about the American healthcare system. Most of the doctors we interacted with wanted us to learn more and took time to make sure we could see in surgery by bringing in stepstools and cameras, answering any questions we had and making themselves available to us during our time there.

What did you do outside your duties as a Fellow?

Five female students stand together with a brick wall and open metal window grates behind them. Beyond the windows, you can see the terracotta rooftops of an Italian village below.
Haley Boom (far right) visits the Asinelli Tower in Bologna while participating in the Doctors in Italy Fellowship program. (Photo provided)

Outside of the hospital, we were able to experience Italian culture through tours, cooking classes and shows. Shadowing happened Monday to Thursday, with Friday dedicated to excursions in different cities including San Luca, Ferrara, Modena and Parma. Additionally, on the weekends we planned excursions as a group and went to the cities of Venice, Verona, Milan and Rome. Overall, this program was an amazing experience to not only solidify my future in the healthcare field but to explore Italy and gain an appreciation for the culture and people. I would highly recommend this program to students looking to gain a deeper understanding of the healthcare system in a different country and prepare for a future career in medicine.