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Open Access Research article

Promoting medical competencies through international exchange programs: benefits on communication and effective doctor-patient relationships

Fabian Jacobs1*, Karsten Stegmann2 and Matthias Siebeck13

Author Affiliations

1 Center for International Health CIH, Department of Surgery, Faculty of Medicine, LMU Munich, Nussbaumstr. 20, 80336 Munich, Germany

2 Department of Psychology, LMU Munich, Leopoldstrasse 13, 80802 Munich, Germany

3 Department of Surgery, Faculty of Medicine, LMU Munich, Munich, Germany

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BMC Medical Education 2014, 14:43  doi:10.1186/1472-6920-14-43

Published: 4 March 2014



Universities are increasingly organizing international exchange programs to meet the requirements of growing globalisation in the field of health care. Analyses based on the programs’ fundamental theoretical background are needed to confirm the learning value for participants. This study investigated the extent of sociocultural learning in an exchange program and how sociocultural learning affects the acquisition of domain-specific competencies.


Sociocultural learning theories were applied to study the learning effect for German medical students from the LMU Munich, Munich, Germany, of participation in the medical exchange program with Jimma University, Jimma, Ethiopia. First, we performed a qualitative study consisting of interviews with five of the first program participants. The results were used to develop a questionnaire for the subsequent, quantitative study, in which 29 program participants and 23 matched controls performed self-assessments of competencies as defined in the Tuning Project for Health Professionals. The two interrelated studies were combined to answer three different research questions.


The participants rated their competence significantly higher than the control group in the fields of doctor-patient relationships and communication in a medical context. Participant responses in the two interrelated studies supported the link between the findings and the suggested theoretical background.


Overall, we found that the exchange program affected the areas of doctor-patient relationships and effective communication in a medical context. Vygotsky’s sociocultural learning theory contributed to explaining the learning mechanisms of the exchange program.

Medical education; Sociocultural learning; Vygotsky; International cooperation; Internationalization on universities; Outcomes of exchange programs; Global health education