Medical Volunteering Abroad

* Note: This is the first of a new type of ethics blog post—a short description of an ethics issue related to anthropology that is appearing in the news and other online media, accompanied by links to original source material. Students and scholars interested in submitting a piece should send their work to the Chair of the Committee on Ethics, Steven Black ([email protected])

Medical Volunteering Abroad
Gabriela Alvarado, MD, MPH
Georgia State University

Many people assume that poor countries with little access to health care and lack of health care providers benefit from international volunteers. However, this may not be the case. In the United States you cannot perform any type of health care related act if you are not a licensed professional. It is deemed unethical. So why is it appropriate for unlicensed people to provide these services in other countries? In addition to untrained people administrating medications, providing sutures, and even performing pelvic examinations there are another set of ethical issues that should also be examined. Developing countries have limited staff as it is, and sending in armies of unqualified volunteers means that the staff has to divert time away from actually caring for patients and tend to the international volunteers. Furthermore, medical student volunteers often want to learn procedures they might not be able to do in the United States, may will focus on experiences for personal benefit instead of what is actually needed in the community.

As a medical doctor, I volunteered in my home country (Costa Rica), in an area of the country called Talamanca. Talamanca is the region of the country where most of the indigenous communities are located; these communities tend to have very poor infrastructure and limited access to healthcare. As a medical intern I spent two weeks volunteering in Talamanca, and quite honestly, I never stopped to consider the ethical implications of me being there. The local doctor had to make time to accommodate three interns, show us around, and figure out things to keep us ‘entertained.’ Now, as a graduate student with an interest in medical anthropology, I wonder: was it really necessary for us to be there? Who gained the most from the whole exchange?

While these issues have been overlooked in the past in public discourses, they are now starting to be considered and there is a call to reexamine the role of volunteers abroad and how to really benefit local communities:

http://www.orlandosentinel.com/opinion/os-ed-health-care-third-world-022616-20160225-story.html
http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2016/02/11/465428990/the-risks-and-unexpected-benefits-of-sending-health-students-abroad
https://www.cfhi.org/sites/files/files/pages/beyond_medical_missions_to_impact_driven.98631.pdf