Go Abroad, Give Back: Medical Missions Aren’t Just For MDs
When Emily Scott packs for a trip, she makes sure she has clothes, toiletries, and surgical gauze.
Medical supplies in your carry-on? It could become more common than you might expect. Scott, a nurse from Seattle, Washington, is one of a growing number of travelers who are seeking out volunteer experiences abroad. Sometimes referred to as “voluntourists,” these travelers partner with organizations around the globe on projects ranging from helping to build houses in hurricane-ravaged communities in the Caribbean to pitching in at under-served medical clinics around the world.
Here's the why and how of medical volunteering from those — with and without professional medical backgrounds — who have done it.
Taking medical experience on the road
Many of these service-minded travel opportunities allow volunteers to support people and communities in need. Those with professional backgrounds in healthcare are in high demand for such roles. Scott, for example, has mentored Ugandan midwives and nurses, and in 2013 served on the front lines of the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone.
A term often used to describe these trips is medical missions, but the busy schedules of many in the medical field are often a barrier to signing on. Which is why Calvin Sun, a 31-year-old emergency room doctor in New York City, launched a startup dubbed The Monsoon Diaries.
“When I was in medical school and going on trips abroad, one of the most frequent questions I got was how did I have time to do this,” says Sun, who as a student helped build a medical clinic in Mexico and recently partnered with Project Medishare to provide health services in Haiti. “I want other doctors and healthcare professionals to realize it is possible to do both.”
Beyond the satisfaction of knowing you’re making a real difference in a community, Sun explains that the organized structure of many group travel programs such as The Monsoon Diaries also allows volunteers to fully experience the culture of another country.
“One thing that’s so important in these types of experiences,” Sun says, “is looking for ones that can create a sum-positive experience for the people you work with, as well as yourself.”
For Scott, it’s all about synergy. Her volunteer posts abroad and her work at home build on and strengthen each other while providing a unique perspective on both her career and life.
“I never would have seen Ebola up-close back in Seattle,” she says. “So as a nurse, I approached that mission with equal parts fascination and terror. But as a person, I was grappling with fear and an intense desire to help. So I really had to dig deep and realize that I didn’t want fear to hold me back. I had a skill, and I could help in the best way I knew how.”
No medical background required
While some medical volunteering programs insist that volunteers have a healthcare experience, others accept volunteers of all professional backgrounds. What's more, not all of these opportunities require far-flung travel.
Kelsey Swenson, 27, of Minneapolis, Minnesota, says her grandmother, Georgann, promised her a trip after her high school graduation. As graduation loomed, however, her grandmother presented a different offer: They could go to Europe, or she could bring Swenson to Camp Goodtimes, a camp for children with cancer located outside of Seattle, where Georgann had volunteered one week of her summer for the past 15 years.
“I chose the camp,” says Swenson, who now spends two weeks of each summer volunteering at the organization using her vacation time. Swenson had no medical experience when she first started helping out, but Camp Goodtimes partially inspired Swenson to become a nurse as well.
“I always have people say, ‘Wouldn’t you want to go to a resort or something?’ But I truly wouldn’t. Yes, I’d sleep more. The food would be better. I’d have a chance to relax. But I always come home and to my real job so much more fulfilled. There aren’t a lot of vacation opportunities where you’re able to give to others while giving to yourself, too,” Swenson says.
Not a vacation, but no less rewarding
The logistics of a medical mission vary depending on the program, but those who’ve partaken in one say that it’s not your typical vacation. The cost of these trips can vary from several hundred dollars a week to several thousand for a multi-week placement; covering international airfare is generally the volunteer’s responsibility. Accommodations also varies — you may be staying in a hotel, a host home with a member of a local community, a hostel or a dorm.
“I used to tell everyone I knew that they should go on a volunteer trip,” Scott says. “But it may not be right for everyone.” She looks for programs with infrastructure in place: “You’re not helping anyone if you get sick,” she notes, “so I look for places that have clean water and accessible accommodations where I know it will be easy to fall asleep.”
Some programs facilitating medical missions, including those Sun curates, offer days off for sightseeing as well as touring options. But those who are considering a journey like these should bear in mind these programs generally depend on volunteers to be available for work most days.
That’s fine, Scott says, because the experience of volunteering can lead to incredible opportunities that more conventional tourism wouldn't create. “I’m going back to Kenya in a few months because the son of a family I stayed with there is getting married,” she says, “so I’m going to attend the wedding as a guest.”
“Everyone has some sort of specialized skill that can make a difference in the world,” Scott says. Whether medically trained or not, the need for those willing to lend their time and talent is only growing.
How to find places to volunteer
Want to give back? Seasoned volunteers share their tips on finding the right experience for you.
1. Get your feet wet
Before you embark on a two-week volunteer journey, Scott says, research a “social impact trip” — essentially tours that incorporate some low-impact volunteer opportunities. “These can help you find out if you like living with a host family, being more engaged in the day-to-day of a community and help you experience a country for the first time without the pressure to perform a job,” says Scott. Searching “social impact travel” online can surface organizations that specialize in these sorts of trips.
2. Look for an experienced outfitter
There’s a lot of value in assisting an established organization — not least of all because they will have the capabilities in place to protect your health and safety, says Sun. Once you’ve found an organization that seems in line with what you want to do, ask for a few referrals from past volunteers. They’ll be able to provide you a more detailed sense of the daily schedule, the ups and downs of the trip, and more.
3. Make sure your own logistics are covered
Prior to any volunteer travel opportunity, it’s essential to ensure you’re protected — get necessary travel insurance, vaccinations or paperwork prior to going abroad. Some organizations can assist you through this process, but volunteers say it’s important to also do your own due diligence and be realistic about the risks you may face. It’s also helpful to consider other potential barriers: If you don’t speak a local language, for example, ask whether interpreters will be on hand to aid you in communication.
4. Don’t discount local opportunities
While a trip abroad may be the dream, it can sometimes be hard for schedules and logistics to line up. In that case, Sun advises, consider local opportunities to make a difference. These sorts of opportunities can be equally as valuable and are often times more accessible.
Medical volunteer organizations to consider
Ready to pack that surgical gauze in your carry-on bag? These groups offer a jumping-off point for medical volunteer opportunities abroad. Many organizations have roles available for those with and without a medical background. While programs vary, those who don't have a medical background may be tasked with administrative work, general patient support, assisting medical professionals in organizing and delivering supplies, providing emotional support to patients, and helping create and staff clinics in the field.
GoEco This sustainable travel organization has medical placement and volunteer opportunities around the world from one week to several months long. This organization offers placements for both medical practitioners and those who are not in the field.
United Planet This organization offers worldwide placement, in varying time frames, for all medical professionals, including nutritionists, social workers and physical and speech therapists. This organization focuses exclusively on those in the medical and medical-adjacent fields.
Goodtimes Project This non-profit supports camps, events and local events for pediatric cancer patients and their families in Washington and Alaska. Medical and non-medical volunteer positions are available for the summer camp program.