When news of health crises hit the news, our first instinct is to rush supplies and aid to these areas, but there are lots of ways to contribute to communities who need help with basic healthcare over the long term.
That’s where study abroad programs and volunteer missions step in. By completing some of your studies abroad or simply taking time off from your usual job to volunteer overseas, you can help to change the world—and broaden your own horizons at the same time.
Over the past couple of decades, the number of young people choosing to develop their medical skills and experience abroad has skyrocketed. And there’s a very good reason why.
Well-run medical missions and study-abroad trips can transform lives. Communities on the ground are empowered through access to life-changing medical care and sanitation. Meanwhile, students and medical professionals get a fresh new perspective on medicine—from the role of multinational pharmaceutical companies to the global nature of disease.
But it doesn’t always run smoothly. On poorly planned trips, enthusiastic volunteers can find themselves watching on from a distance without ever getting the chance to engage properly with local patients and doctors.
Worse still, they might be encouraged to take on tasks that they are not properly trained for, with potentially serious consequences.
Finding the right placement
Needless to say, it’s crucial that you find the right organization to travel with.
“Find out how they run their programs, and what their connections are in the country for follow-up care,” says Christina Gunther, director of global programs at Connecticut’s Sacred Heart University, which leads healthcare missions to destinations such as Guatemala, Jamaica, and Mexico.
She also recommends taking time to research an organization’s approach to treating patients before agreeing to travel abroad with them. “It’s really critical that you find [an organization] that has good guidelines on ethical care,” she says.
So what are the options?
Whether you’re just beginning your studies or already have a decade of professional experience under your belt, there will be a trip out there just for you. You could study healthcare access in Honduras, work with dental specialists to improve the oral health of children in Uganda, or deliver lessons in emergency care in rural India.
Of course, the more relevant a trip is to your chosen specialty, the more rewarding it will be. Responsible colleges and universities arrange trips that are designed specifically to complement class- and hospital-based learning at key points throughout their courses, and only allow students to join trips that they are clinically prepared for.
Outside of a school setting, you also can connect with charities, religious missions and organizations such as Volunteer International that advertise new opportunities online, while groups such as the International Medical Corps recruit for trained emergency response volunteers who must be ready to deploy overseas at the drop of a hat. Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), which provides emergency aid to people in urgent need, usually requires a longer commitment of 9–12 months for its projects overseas.
Whichever route you follow, make sure your skills are good enough for you to make a useful contribution, and be sure to stay long enough to make a lasting difference to local people—not just long enough to give your résumé a quick boost.
Volunteering abroad without a medical background
If you don’t have clinical experience (or any kind of medical background, for that matter) there are still ways for you to make a difference abroad. Skills you have that might seem unimpressive back home, such as being able to teach English or use a computer, can be extremely useful in a wide range of situations abroad. But be warned: unscrupulous organizations have been known to take advantage of people with good intentions.
Judicious research is the best way to make sure you don’t get stung. Websites such as Charity Navigator evaluate the financial health, accountability, and transparency of various charities, and may help you to decide which organization you want to team up with.
Ready to go?
Let’s be clear: making a difference through medicine overseas is no vacation. Days are often long (on a typical mission with Sacred Heart University, students see 800–1000 patients per week) and conditions can be tough. Funding a study abroad trip can also be a challenge. But, get a place on the right trip and there’s no limit to what you can learn.
“There’s a real understanding in the healthcare field that healthcare is a global issue,” says Gunther. “Students need to be experienced—not only with diseases of the world, but also with cultures of the world. This is especially important in the United States, where a lot of them will be working in emergency rooms or hospitals in cities where you have a real mix of people coming in.”
And, she adds, “Understanding cultural differences can make a whole difference to the care of a patient.”
This article is part of a continuing series covering study abroad programs with Project Travel, a company that helps students of all ages tap into the funding potential of their communities. Rough Guides is proud to support the students working to fund their study abroad programs with Project Travel. Visit projecttravel.com/go/rough-guides for more information.