Travel Healing: So You Want to be Part of a Medical Mission?
So, you have decided that you want to take your medical skills on the road? Not sure when, where or how? Although medical missions can be a valuable way to utilize ones acquired skills, there are important questions and considerations one should ask of themselves before signing up and heading out.
What is your intent for volunteering?
As a professional, it is easy to think that volunteering your skills is going to be a positive and impactful gesture. You have thoughts of being welcomed with cheers and smiles, children running to you as you enter the rural clinic or village. Before leaving the comfort of home, think about what your goals and intent are for volunteering. It is easy to think that one will go out and “save the world” but one should also consider the potential negative footprint that “outsiders” may leave behind. Do not be afraid to ask the organization about their Vision, Mission and Goals. Some organizations use volunteers to augment gaps in their schedules and provide specialty services while other organizations utilize volunteers to help spread their own mission such as religious information through sermons etc. What are the organizations long term goals in providing sustainability to the services they are providing to that particular community? Another important aspect to keep in mind is your scope of practice especially in countries outside of where you are licensed to practice. While opportunities to complete skills may occur, please note that you should adhere to your scope of practice, and should not complete skills and tasks that you have not been officially trained in.
What are you willing to pay?
The next thing to consider are the out of pocket costs. This can be a large consideration to “volunteering” especially if you are traveling outside of the US. When looking outside of the country there are often other costs to think about:
- Agency fees which often cover in country translators, food, in country travel and at times housing
- Travel costs to the destination country
- Visa costs for some countries
- Vaccines: there are some countries that require additional vaccines such as Hepatitis A, Typhoid etc. These are very often not covered by health insurance and can be costly.
- Passport costs
- Travel Health insurance
- International cell phone plan or minutes
There are some organizations such as Remote Area Medical (RAM) that conduct medical clinics within rural portions of the US. The volunteer is responsible for transportation to the site and lodging, but there is no agency fee to volunteer for their domestic clinics.
If traveling outside of the US, please be considerate of any travel advisories which ae posted by the U.S Department of State. Any traveler should check this website before leaving the country to understand potential safety risks. Organizations may continue to send volunteers to certain countries despite issued travel warnings. Know what it means if you decide to travel and encounter any issues while outside of the U.S.
You should also know the health concerns of the area to which you are traveling. While vaccines can help to prevent some infectious diseases, other illnesses can be obtained from simple things such as brushing your teeth with local water, consuming drinks with ice or consuming foods that may not be prepared correctly. Gastrointestinal issues are common amongst volunteers and understanding “travelers’ diarrhea” versus a concerning infection is very important.
In 2015, I had the wonderful opportunity to spend one week in Haiti, volunteering at Hospital Bernard Mevs in Port Au Prince through an organization called Project Medishare. I chose this organization due to their low cost for room and board and their lack of affiliation with any religious entities (something that was important to me at the time). The process to sign up was simple and because they bring in a new volunteer team each week, the timing was very flexible. I will admit that I thought that I was going to be such a wonderful asset, come in and provide so many great services. My first overnight shift in the ER I learned I was most helpful waiting to figure out how I could be helpful versus just being in the way. In the end, even though I did not speak the same language as my Haitian coworkers, we took on the tasks that we knew how to do best and created our own workflows. I encountered disease processes that I would most likely never have encountered in the US such as severe hydrocephalus and spina bifida, patient abandonment and socioeconomic factors that were shocking. I discovered my own unconscious biases and 1rst world impressions and learned to step back, observe family and community relationships to become more culturally sensitive. I spent a week earning the respect of the Haitian staff and patients. On the flight home I cried. I cried for the children that were abandoned in the hospital. I cried for not being able to do more and not wanting to leave just yet. I hope to again one day venture out of my comfort zone to another country to learn and grown!
Deciding to volunteer, whether domestically or internationally, should be done after careful consideration of one’s own personal goals while considering potential costs and risks. Finding the right organization and opportunity can result in a culturally diverse opportunity that can not only positively impact the volunteer but also the community that the volunteer serves.