International Medical Volunteering: A Step-By-Step Guide
So, you’re interested in medical volunteering overseas. I get it. Who wouldn’t be? There are so many reasons to volunteer internationally, such as having a better-looking CV, gaining a sense of accomplishment, and developing your communication and teamwork. Plus, it’s basically a holiday, since as soon as you’re done with the day’s work, you’re free to explore the nightlife of a foreign city all on your own!
I recently just completed a three-week outreach trip to Vietnam, and it was one of the most thrilling yet educational experiences I have ever had. Working in a difficult clinical environment, with scarce resources and a pretty significant language barrier, (believe it or not, the two weeks I spent on Duolingo learning Vietnamese were not enough for me to start taking entire medical histories – thank goodness for translators) it was easily the most adversity I have ever faced as a medical student, but I rose to the challenge, developing some life-long problem solving and communication skills along the way.
I just dumped on you a whole lot of reasons why international medical volunteering is the best thing ever, and yet, only a very tiny proportion of medical students have ever done it. I believe one of the biggest reasons for this is simply that medical students don’t know where to start. It may seem overwhelming at first, not knowing who to contact, or how to prepare for international medical volunteering. So, to help eliminate that barrier for you, I’ve compiled the ultimate step-by-step guide on how to get started with volunteering overseas, and how to get the most out of it!
Think about why you want to volunteer overseas
This might be the most important step of the entire list. I know I just gave you several reasons why volunteering overseas is so very rewarding and everyone should get involved, but it’s also key that you be realistic about your expectations for it. Many of my peers have always wanted to go volunteer overseas because they think that they’ll be able to swoop in and diagnose a patient having an acute MI, and order the nurses to get him started on thrombolytics right away. The truth is, your responsibilities are not that different than those in your regular rotations.
During the clinical component of my trip in Vietnam, I was basically only able to take histories with the help of an interpreter and conduct simple physical examinations, and would then report my findings to the doctor looking after me that day. It was a wonderful learning experience because while using an interpreter is an important skill to have in clinical practice, we rarely get an opportunity to practice in our regular learning, but otherwise, it wasn’t a significantly different experience from my usual rotations.
The best reason to go is if you’re keen to gain a unique perspective of the difficulties and other health inequities that developing countries face, then this would absolutely be something worth pursuing. Exposure to other healthcare systems and cultures will certainly give you a greater appreciation of global health, an invaluable lesson that I believe simply can’t be taught any other way. So consider what your ultimate goals are for overseas volunteering, and check whether these are realistic.
Identify the activities you’d like to be involved in
There are so many different roles you can take on a medical outreach trip. My trip consisted of: a clinical component, where I essentially just spent a week on rotation in a small Vietnamese hospital; a health education component, where I assisted in teaching young rural children the process and importance of maintaining proper hand and oral hygiene; and a general volunteering component, where I spent a week in a local school, bouncing between teaching English to some of the older students and helping with the construction of a new building for the school.
There are countless different opportunities and responsibilities that you can take on, and I would advise that you construct a list of the activities that you’re interested in partaking in. Make sure these activities align with your goals that I suggested you identify. For example, if you’re more interested in making a direct difference in the community you visit, I would recommend looking into trips that focus on educating young children, whereas if you’re keener on learning, I would recommend looking into trips that take place in a hospital and allow you to directly interact with patients.
Create a list of countries you’re keen on
Now, to the fun part! This was easily the most enjoyable part of the preparation process, just Googling all the different countries I could potentially visit, and ogling at how beautiful the views were or how delicious the food looked. This is definitely an important step because you have to identify whether you’ll actually enjoy the surroundings that you’ll be staying in for a few weeks. It’s also important, however, to consider whether the country you’ll be visiting will actually be able to provide you with the activities or experiences you’re hoping to get out of the trip.
For example, I was personally weighing up between volunteering in China or Vietnam, but as a Chinese speaker, I didn’t feel like a trip to China would have provided me with some of the challenges (such as using an interpreter) or the new culture that I was hoping to encounter. So jot down some countries that you think you would like to visit and make sure they can provide you with the experiences you’re looking for!
Ask around your school
Now that you’ve created a list of the goals, activities, and countries that you’re keen on, it’s time to start looking for a way to actually go overseas. Most people forget that their medical schools are actually looking out for their students (even if it doesn’t feel like it sometimes, with the low-yield lectures and occasional aloof professors/lecturers), and have systems in place to provide their students with opportunities like these!
Get in touch with the dean, or whoever else is directly involved with the medical students at your school, and let them know that you’re searching for an opportunity to volunteer overseas. If they don’t have anything available immediately, they’ll be able to reach out and let you know when something does pop up!
Alternatively, ask some of your professors directly, as most of the lecturers and professors I’ve had have direct connections to foreign hospitals from their own involvement with international health. If you’re on rotations, ask whoever is in charge of your department. If you’re friends with any upper-classmen, ask them if they’re planning anything like this soon and if you can join in, or if they’ve already been on a volunteering trip, ask who they contacted so you can do the same. The point is, if you search hard enough, an opportunity will present itself at your school!
Do some research online
If you had no luck with step number 4, or if you simply can’t be bothered searching within your school, there are numerous organizations that will do all the hard work of activity planning and searching for accommodation for you. Have a look online for organizations dedicated specifically to providing medical students with hands-on experience volunteering overseas.
Be careful of organizations that aren’t clear with their policies or refuse to answer questions you may have. There’s nothing worse than investing a large amount of time, money, and excitement into a trip, only to find out nothing has been planned for you or that the activities you were promised aren’t actually available.
Also, make sure that the program can use your expertise as much as possible – if you’ve ever studied engineering or if you worked as a nurse before embarking on the journey that is medical school, make sure you can be involved in a role that allows you to tinker with medical equipment or allows you to directly be involved inpatient care.
A few of the biomedical engineering students at my university were involved in a program where they managed to repair over a few million dollars’ worths of medical equipment in Cambodia! Ensure that the organization that you’ll be involved with allows you to be maximally involved and helps you achieve your goals.
Prepare for the activities you’ll undertake
This step is crucial for making sure you’ll be able to enjoy this trip to the fullest. If you know you’ll be involved with patient assessment, make sure to brush up on some basic history-taking and physical examination techniques. If you’re going to be teaching young children important hand hygiene or oral hygiene skills, make sure you know how to explain these in a simple yet engaging way.
Perhaps even more importantly, make sure you also know how to properly wash your hands and floss! There was nothing more shocking than meeting some of my peers that would also be teaching oral hygiene, only to find out that one of them didn’t actually know how to floss! To ensure that you get the most out of the activities you’ll be doing, make sure you actually know how to do them.
Ready for take-off!
Once you’ve made all your preparations for the volunteering component of the trip, it’s time to make sure you’re actually ready to fly! Renew your passport if need be, get all of the necessary shots (either visit a travel clinic or review the CDC guidelines on the recommended vaccines or prophylactic medications for the region you’ll be traveling to), and make sure to stay healthy before you depart! Also bring some additional personal medical supplies, especially things like Gastro-Lyte and some loperamide. I had a bit of a close call with some street meat about half-way through the trip, but thanks to my preparation, I was still able to continue with the journey.
Some organizations and most school-arranged trips will have everyone going on the trip meet at the airport before you all set out together, so take this opportunity to get to know some of these people! You will be able to forge some unbreakable friendships and make some unforgettable memories with these people, so try to establish a relationship with them before departure if possible.
Getting the most out of your time there
Obviously, you want to make the most of your time on the trip. This step relies partly on some of the previous steps before, such as step 6 and 7, but more importantly, it relies on you having a positive attitude the entire time. There will be a massive culture shock at first if you’ve never visited the country before, which may seem daunting and put you off from engaging as much as you could with the learning or medical volunteering opportunities you’ve been presented with.
But remember, you’re there because you had a goal, whether it was to learn new things or make a difference in the lives of those less fortunate, so keep that goal in mind, and throw yourself into your activities as much as possible.
Also, make sure to enjoy the non-medical parts of the country in your downtime! Most activities won’t last the entire day, and you’ll have the freedom to partake in the night-time revelries of a foreign city or discover new pastimes and cuisine that aren’t available in your home country. Take advantage of this, and turn your medical volunteering trip into a semi-holiday while you’re there!
I managed to go on several bike tours, take a cooking class, watch some traditional plays and take part in the most incredible and rowdy celebrations as the Vietnamese soccer team won the Southeast Asian Games for the first time in decades (which was a sensational experience, as soon as I got over my fear of stampedes), all in the span of a few nights!
Make sure you establish a good relationship with some of the locals, because they’ll be able to give you the most authentic experience of their local activities – my cooking class was actually organized by one of the street vendors I befriended, and she managed to arrange a one-on-one personal session with the best chef in their neighborhood!
Reflect, reflect, reflect!
So once you’re done having the time of your life overseas and you’ve come home to your usual hectic routines as a medical student, take some time to reflect on your experiences. This is significant because not only is this the best way to solidify your learnings from your time overseas, but it can also provide your worldview with an extra layer of perspective.
Think about questions like what was different about the culture there? It can be really productive and humbling to think about how different people from different countries have a different worldview than yours. When I was in Vietnam, I was stunned by the overwhelming camaraderie and emphasis on the family they displayed. I witnessed an entire community band together and offer what little they had so that one patient could afford an expensive procedure. There were doctors paying for medications for their patients out of their own pockets. I also saw other doctors and nurses spending just as much time consoling families as they did treating patients. The strong focus on community in Vietnamese culture made me reevaluate my own beliefs and values, and I have no doubt that I have a more well-rounded outlook now because of my reflection.
Another important question to think about is: what was different about the healthcare system? It can be very uncomfortable to be confronted with situations where basic things you take for granted every day are suddenly scarce and are insufficient to provide proper care for patients. I went to a private high school, and I remember walking past at least three defibrillators when I went from one side of the English building to the other. Contrast that with the small hospital I visited, where three defibrillators had to suffice for the entire west wing of the hospital. It is important to reflect on the luxuries we have in relatively affluent societies and to appreciate these.
So there you have it! My step-by-step guide to international medical volunteering. Hopefully, this checklist has shown you that volunteering overseas is not as daunting a task as it may initially seem and that the opportunities are all around you – you simply have to look for them.
Have any other advice for medical students looking to embark on this wonderful adventure?
Be sure to leave it in the comments below!