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  • Writer's pictureDan English

The Importance of Building Sustainable Partnerships: Don't Volunteer Just for the Feels

Updated: Sep 12, 2019

This picture was taken from atop the community health center in San José de Chamanga, Ecuador. They center provides healthcare for the town and surrounding communities. It also serves as home base for research projects designed to benefit the local population.
A view of Chamanga, Ecuador

Medical mission trips are a growing way for medical professionals to hone their skills. As a young doctor or nurse, medical mission trips give you the rush of being swept away to a developing country. Medical volunteers get the good feels of making a difference in the world. People who participate in medical mission trips are generally good-natured folks. They genuinely want to help and want to do good in the world. Medical missionaries talk about how they personally benefit from their trips. However, volunteers should consider more sustained efforts to strengthen individual communities.

On the blog, volunteers talk about how working abroad has broadened their horizons. Working in Honduras helped one dental assistant improve her communication skills. Another dental assistant says her trip helped her work effectively with children. Doctors and nurses told me they perfected many skills and techniques working in a foreign country.

Medical professionals can use new skills learned in a developing country and come back to their home country as an expert. This is a great benefit to the home communities medical volunteers will serve, but it may not be so great for the developing communities they volunteer in. Is it okay to practice on people in developing populations just because they’re poor? People in local populations have an increased chance of being the victim of medical mistakes. And doctors who swoop in with the best intentions may only be able to provide temporary treatment for chronic conditions.

It’s also important to ask if the developing population you’re serving is getting as much out of a medical mission as the volunteers are. Individual patients, regardless of social status, should be getting the best care and medical advice possible. New doctors and nurses working in developing countries are not bringing years of experience and expertise in many cases. Are the medical professionals leaving any knowledge behind? Is anyone from the developing community being trained a local health worker?

Charity groups, medical schools, and NGOs should consider more sustained efforts to working in developing countries. Instead of swooping in and treating people waiting in long lines, schools should set up permanent clinics in developing communities. Organizations can work with local schools and organizations to build stronger medical infrastructure and train local people as medical experts. Permanent clinics in developing countries can serve as a home base for a Global Health curriculum as well as a training ground to help communities become self-sufficient.

Medical volunteers can still use these facilities to hone their skills under the supervision of trained medical professionals and local experts. They can also improve their communications skills working with the local medical professionals while passing on new knowledge and skills. This way, medical volunteers can get the experiences they want, they can leave a sustainable footprint behind, and still get all the good feels.

Learn more from NPR.

#GlobalHealth #MedicalMission

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