Doctors In a Strange Land - Medical Volunteering

volunteer and doctorsIf you’re a doctor, nurse, dentist, physical therapist or other healthcare provider, why not think about serving a community in a unique way?

And if you’re a pre-med student or aspiring medical professional wanting to enhance your skill set, why not do so in an overseas community by becoming a medical volunteer? Perhaps you have no medical training but are thinking of medicine as a career option. Perhaps you simply want to help sick, impoverished people. Whatever your reasons or qualifications, you can use your skills and energy to help bring top quality healthcare to people in developing countries, some of whom could spend their whole lives without the opportunity to see a qualified medical professional.

Most people think of volunteering as doing things like teaching English overseas, helping to build schools and hospitals, or working with orphaned children or endangered animals. What they don’t always consider is that they may be able to play a different volunteering role as a highly skilled and specialised professional. As a medical volunteer, they are able to bring vital skills and resources to where it’s desperately needed.

Many are familiar with the incredible humanitarian work of Doctors Without Borders, an organisation that sends medical professionals to ‘Ground Zero’ - war-torn and disease-ridden countries worldwide. They are necessarily a highly selective group who tend to prefer French-speaking individuals over other language groups, as the bulk of their current projects are situated in the old French colonies of central and western Africa. They are also aimed at volunteers who sign up for long-term projects. If you don’t have the opportunity to donate your skills for a long period of time, or if the idea of war-torn countries and those with deadly endemic diseases like Ebola seems a bit too daunting, don’t be disappointed – there are plenty of other opportunities for you to make a difference as a short-term volunteer, at a project in a relatively peaceful and safe area.

The need for medical volunteers exists pretty much everywhere around the world. It’s a harsh fact of our world that although countries in the West and Far East enjoy a high standard of health care which is easily accessible for their populations, the same is absolutely not true for most other countries. 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. 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.

As a medical volunteer, you don’t necessarily have to have a medical degree - requirements vary from project to project. Some projects accept volunteers who simply have an interest in medical volunteering but have no technical training, while others require a degree and clinical experience. All volunteers should have the opportunity to watch and learn from qualified practitioners who are used to the work environment, and who will provide support and insight. There are also pre-med overseas volunteering programs aimed specifically at undergraduate and graduate medical student volunteers.

For those interested in medical volunteering, it will be to the benefit of you and your potential patients to take your time and choose your project carefully. You want to ensure that you’ll be able to use your skills where they will make the most impact. Make a list of the qualities that are necessary or desirable to you in a particular volunteer project; like the opportunity to work with local medical professionals, or the opportunity to work exclusively within your own medical specialty, and use that as your starting point. Remember that, as a volunteer, you’re entitled to find projects that fit YOUR requirements, as well as vice-versa!

You might have a specific interest in infectious diseases, and 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. There are volunteering opportunities in a large variety of fields.

Most important to note is, besides your training and skills; you will need oodles of resilience, patience, resourcefulness and a VERY open mind. Developing countries may have very little in the way of resources – even relatively developed countries like South Africa face huge challenges with staff, medication and equipment shortages, coupled with large impoverished populations spread out over vast areas. You will be dealing mostly with uneducated people who subsist below the breadline. Some of the people you help might not have had contact with any sort of medical professional before, and have made do with traditional and folk healing methods. They might not be familiar with syringes, stethoscopes or other medical equipment or actual medicines, and will need to be shown that they aren’t dangerous!

You might be viewed warily, as an ignorant outsider looking down on their age-old methods. Traditional African healers use a holistic approach to medicine based on the premise of interconnectedness. They understand diseases to be caused by a spiritual or social misalignment or disorder, either internal or external, and treat them mainly with herbal remedies. They might not have the slightest idea what ‘germs’ are! An insightful, respectful and integrative approach, using your theoretical and practical knowledge in tandem with local customs, will be your best ally in gaining the trust of the locals and providing them the best care possible.  Keep in mind, too, that although there is a common belief in the West that African traditional healers practice witchcraft, African belief does not encourage or condone it but nonetheless accepts it as real.

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. It’s a fantastic opportunity 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. Most likely, the experience will enhance and deepen your dedication to your profession and help remind you exactly why you chose your field!


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