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Original Research

Where We Fall Down: Tensions in Teaching Social Medicine and Global Health


Amy Finnegan ,

SocMed, Minneapolis, MN; Department of Justice and Peace Studies, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN
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Michelle Morse,

Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA; Department of Medicine, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston, MA
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Marisa Nadas,

Jacobi Medical Center, Bronx, NY; Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Women's Health, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, NY
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Michael Westerhaus

SocMed, Minneapolis, MN; EqualHealth, Boston, MA; Department of Medicine, Global Health Pathway, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN; Center for International Health, St. Paul, MN
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As global health interest has risen, so too has the relevance of education on the social determinants of health and health equity. Social medicine offers a particularly salient framework for educating on the social determinants of health, health disparities, and health equity. SocMed and EqualHealth, 2 unique but related organizations, offer annual global health courses in Uganda, Haiti, and the United States, which train students to understand and respond to the social determinants of health through praxis, self-reflection and self-awareness, and building collaborative partnerships across difference.


The aim of this paper is to describe an innovative pedagogical approach to teaching social medicine and global health. We draw on the notion of praxis, which illuminates the value of iterative reflection and action, to critically examine our points of weakness as educators in order to derive lessons with broad applicability for those engaged in global health work.


The data for this paper were collected through an autoethnography of teaching 10 global health social medicine courses in Uganda and Haiti since 2010. It draws on revealing descriptions from participant observation, student feedback collected in anonymous course evaluations, and ongoing relationships with alumni.


Critical analysis reveals 3 significant and complicated tensions raised by our courses. The first point of weakness pertains to issues of course ownership by North American outsiders. The second tension emerges from explicit acknowledgment of social and economic inequities among our students and faculty. Finally, there are ongoing challenges of sustaining positive momentum toward social change after transformative course experiences.


Although successful in generating transformative learning experiences, these courses expose significant fracture points worth interrogating as educators, activists, and global health practitioners. Ultimately, we have identified a need for building equitable partnerships and intentional community, embracing discomfort, and moving beyond reflection to praxis in global health education.

How to Cite: Finnegan, A., Morse, M., Nadas, M. and Westerhaus, M., 2017. Where We Fall Down: Tensions in Teaching Social Medicine and Global Health. Annals of Global Health, 83(2), pp.347–355. DOI:
Published on 16 May 2017.
Peer Reviewed


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