Medical Volunteering in Africa – 6 questions answered

When most people contemplate volunteering abroad, they think about travelling to a developing country and getting involved in general community projects.

Projects like teaching English, coaching sports, helping to renovate school buildings, assisting with feeding schemes and public donations, and many other related functions are the most popular and well-known..

Needless to say, these are all fantastic and rewarding projects that can be of great use to a community in need – if structured sustainably and ethically, and supervised effectively by a professonial volunteer organisation.  However, many people interested in volunteering abroad might not be attracted to these types of projects. Some prefer to choose a different role – that of a specialised volunteer.

There are volunteer service providers who can place volunteers with specialised training and experience in the fields of engineering, infrastructure and medicine, among others. For this article, we will focus on the whats, hows and whys of medical and healthcare volunteering in Africa.

1. Do I need a medical degree to volunteer in medicine or healthcare?

For most projects, you need to be studying medicine, or working as a professional in the medical field.

There are well-known humanitarian organisations like Doctors Without Borders who have pretty strict criteria for their volunteers. For example, you need to be a qualified doctor or nurse with at least 2 years’ full work experience, and you need to be available for at least 9 months. Professionals who work with this organisation will often be posted to projects in conflict or post-conflict areas, or those affected by serious endemic diseases.

These projects might be too daunting or out of reach for most medical or healthcare students or professionals. The good news is, plenty of organisations assist with projects in peaceful countries, where the main challenges are a lack of basic medical resources and manpower. Often, volunteers won’t need such extensive professional experience.

Take a look at Khaya’s medical projects in Tanzania and Zanzibar for examples. Volunteer services at these projects are very valuable and you won’t have to worry about your safety, or about devoting a long period of time to the project.

2. What skills do I need to volunteer abroad in healthcare?

Usually, you should be studying medicine or healthcare, and have a keen desire to help. For example, you might be a student of medicine who takes some time during your semester break to make an overseas volunteering trip to share your skills and take some pressure off overworked medical staff.

For pre-med students, nursing students, and health sciences students - opportunities exist to assist licensed practitioners in many ways, including hands-on support in immunisations, wound and injury care, obstetrics, neonatology, treatment of diseases etc. for more advanced students.

Volunteers in healthcare will need an abundance of patience and positivity. The communities helped by these projects are usually extremely poor, and volunteers will probably see things that might be very unpleasant or even shocking that they might not experience in Western hospitals or clinics.

Medical volunteers must maintain a respectful and open-minded attitude towards the community they work in. There’s a misconception in the West that traditional African communities practice witchcraft. While some elements of “casting spells” might still remain, they are not encouraged in 21st century Africa. Rather, traditional African healers use a holistic approach to medicine and their understanding of disease is that it is caused by a spiritual or social disorder.

Diseases are treated mainly with age-old herbal remedies. Although many communities in Africa are familiar with modern medicine, they might forego recommended treatments in favour of traditional methods – like many people in the West who choose alternative remedies instead of tried-and-tested medical treatments. Local doctors will know about all these elements of healthcare in their communities, and treat their patients with the necessary understanding.

A quick-thinking and proactive approach will be a big advantage for a medical volunteer in a developing country – with a lack of medical supplies, medical staff in these communities often have to improvise with what’s available.

3. Do I have to volunteer for a long period of time?

This depends on the project. Volunteers should look at devoting at least a week or two, to get to know the staff (and vice versa) and their schedules and methods, and be able to take pressure off the staff instead of giving them MORE work!

It’s all very well to visit a foreign country and decide to volunteer at a clinic for a few days – but when you don’t know the routines and methods, or the people of the community you want to help, you will more than likely be a hindrance rather than a help to already stressed and overworked clinic staff.

People in the community might also view a fly-by-night foreign volunteer who hangs around for a few days with some suspicion – bear in mind than in traditional communities, doctors might have their work cut out for them just trying to persuade people that vaccinations and antibiotics aren’t harmful! Local medical staff will know how to work with instead of against traditional methods. 

4. Is it safe to be a medical volunteer in Africa?

When most people think of Africa, they might feel more than a hint of trepidation at the thought of volunteering there. The media tends to focus on aspects of Africa like bloody tribal conflict, child soldiers, mass starvation, refugee camps and terrible epidemics. While these things certainly exist in parts of Africa, most areas are relatively peaceful and Westerners can be assured that they will be welcomed by local communities if they maintain a respectful approach.

Africa is a continent made up of many countries, and it isn’t a huge ubiquitous mass where everyone is the same. Just like Europe; different countries have different customs, socioeconomic and political backgrounds, and levels of infrastructure.

 Countries like Malawi, Tanzania and South Africa are peaceful. There is certainly a high level of poverty and a lack of resources in these countries, and volunteers should be aware of this, but the chances of being caught in some terrifying civil war or dreadful epidemic are basically non-existent.

Check out our Frequently Asked Questions for information and tips on travelling in Africa, and put your mind at rest!

5. Will my volunteering really help the community?

It’s a harsh fact of life that while many countries in the West and East enjoy a high standard of healthcare which is easily accessible by their populations, the same is absolutely not true for most other countries.

Many organisations in these developing countries, as well as many Western organisations, work tirelessly against all the odds to improve the situation. Still, challenges like getting medical supplies to impoverished and remote areas and providing enough staff with sufficient training to these areas are huge.

As a medical volunteer, you’ll be able to use your skills performing or assisting in a variety of vital medical tasks such as vaccinations, obstetrics, neonatal care, wound care, dental care, treatment of various infectious diseases, and so on. You might even provide valuable time off for stressed nurses by helping to entertain hospitalised children or other tasks of that nature, even if you’re not directly involved in the medical aspects of the hospital or clinic.

The project may involve training for local care providers in challenged communities, who have not had the opportunity to learn about hygiene and the safe administration of medication, amongst other vital skills. Local people who receive training usually become trainers themselves, so the skills ripple out into the community at large and help a far larger number of people than you originally had contact with.

6. What will I get out of medical volunteering overseas?

Remember that, as a volunteer, you’re entitled to find projects that fit YOUR requirements, as well as the other way around! If you have a specific interest in an area of medicine, such as infectious diseases or obstetrics, be sure to do your homework and find the project that suits you.

Many medical volunteers in Africa choose to work with HIV patients and support groups, with a focus on helping people to manage their condition. Some projects allow you to get involved in educational outreach projects to help prevent the spread of the disease.

Other projects focus on the treatment and prevention of air- or waterborne diseases such as cholera. Malaria, which is easily treatable but causes many unnecessary disabilities and deaths in countries like Malawi, especially in young children and babies, is another disease that needs volunteers to help implement and sustain treatment options.

The general treatment and care of infants and young children is vital for clinics and hospitals throughout Africa. According to the World Health Organisation, Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest risk of death in the first month of life and is among the regions showing the least progress worldwide.   In recent years, this trend is now declining somewhat, thanks to improvements in antiseptic measures and medicine for sick infants, as well as skills training in feeding methods of all babies. Volunteers can play a large part in helping this process.

Medical volunteering is a unique opportunity for professionals to do what they love, while expanding their knowledge and skills with a different set of challenges to their usual work environment. Students can use the experience to plan their career and professional goals.

Gap year students can use the opportunity to decide what field of medicine or healthcare they want to specialise in, or even if they want to embark upon another path entirely.

A little-known advantage of medical volunteering is that it’s a fantastic way to build a relationship with a community that could possibly span decades. You might well start out with one volunteering trip that extends over time into a major part of your professional and personal mission as a medical provider.

There are volunteering opportunities in a large variety of fields, so “shop around”, ask questions, choose an ethical volunteer service provider whose goal is to help instead of to make a profit - and find the project that matches your personal goals and your passions!


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