Medical mission trips sound impressive. Spending a couple weeks in a third world country and providing health care seems much more meaningful than volunteering at a “boring” clinic in the U.S. It is also enticing to think that going on medical missions will be life-changing.
But are these trips truly valuable? Are a couple weeks in a community really going to help them? Do we hurt them by making them dependent on foreign care? Can we have the same kind of “life-altering” moments in the comforts of a first world country?
In addition, Dr. Alison Hayward from StudentDoctor.net questions whether anyone from developed countries, including incredibly well-trained physicians, are qualified to travel to developing countries to provide medical care. These are all questions that potentially need to be addressed before we go on medical mission trips. Read also about tips for medical traveling and clinical travel assistance.
There is no right answer to the question of whether we should go or not because each individual has a different value system and level of awareness about these issues. However, here are some pros and cons to medical mission trips so that you can make an informed decision on your own.
- Allows people to get out of their comfort zone and see the world in a different perspective (this is true for the person who goes and the people being helped).
- Can foster sympathy, compassion, and selflessness in the individual who is going (character-building).
- Provides opportunity for more hands on clinical experience. For example, in a developing country, you might be asked to take vital signs or record a patient history, things you might not have the opportunity to do as a premed back home.
- It is an opportunity to create lasting relationships with teammates and sometimes natives.
- Can confirm or help formulate reasons for wanting to go into a medical career.
- It is an opportunity to travel and help our fellow man at the same time.
- It can be very fun and refreshing.
- Natives may grow dependent on foreign aid and therefore never develop proper domestic healthcare. This will stunt their economic, social and maybe even political growth.
- Can create a savior complex in the person who is going. It is unrealistic and arrogant to think that our two weeks of medical service will make that significant of a difference.
- There are ethical issues with untrained people providing healthcare in another country just because the restrictions in that country are not as severe. Is it right for you to stick a needle in somebody in Africa if you are not qualified to do it in the US? Admissions committees would not be impressed if you did something like this (quite the opposite actually).
- There are plenty of opportunities to help our fellow man in our own communities.
- The chance of incorrect diagnoses is much higher (assuming you’re working with an actual health professional) because of the language and cultural barrier.
- Medical tourism, which is a hit and run style of medicine, cannot create lasting change in an ailing community and actually hurts the “helped” community.
This is obviously not a comprehensive list but there are plenty of good reasons to go and not go. If you decide to go, make sure you go with an organization that has long-term ties to the community so that there are long lasting effects. Try to see if the organization is training natives to eventually take over (this will help prevent foreign dependency).
Also, it is extremely beneficial to work with native doctors who speak the language and know the culture to prevent misdiagnosis. Please do not go with the perspective that you’re out there to change the world. Most likely, this trip will beneficial you more than the people you help.
Medical mission trips can be amazing learning opportunities that shape your character and vision. However, going with the wrong mentality or organization may end up doing more harm than good to you and the people you are trying to “help.”
If you are a premed student or current medical student looking to get hands-on experience, consider a clinical travel experience with MedSchoolCoach. They currently offer a medical immersion in Havana, Cuba – and more trips are planned!