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Why you should or shouldn’t go on an overseas medical service trip (Part 2)

Should Pre-Med Students go on "medical tourism" trips?

By Ariel Lee

In my previous article, I shared my reasons for why you should go on a medical service trip abroad. In this article, I will be sharing my reasons for why you shouldn’t go on an overseas medical service trip. Please note that some of these ideas are very complex and deserve a more in-depth exploration than this article can provide. I hope they help you make an informed decision on whether or not to go on a trip.

  • You would be supporting voluntourism and “poverty porn.”

“Voluntourism” is a buzz word that is commonly used to describe short-term programs abroad in which people participate in volunteer projects while also participating in leisure activities. “Voluntourists” are not required to have any prior experience before volunteering, and usually pay a significant sum of money to attend these trips. Essentially, voluntourism combines an exotic leisure trip with minor volunteer work. Some argue that short-term medical service trips are exactly that. Pre-meds typically go on short-term (two week long) service trips over spring break or winter break, and most of these trips include some form of leisure (sight-seeing, eating, etc.). Some may argue that these trips are a form of voluntourism and that they may actually do more harm than good (see next point).

Additionally, some argue that these trips support “poverty porn,” defined as “any type of media, be it written, photographed or filmed, which exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers or increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause” (Wikipedia). When volunteers on these trips engage in “poverty porn” by taking pictures with locals and posting them on social media for attention, they are selfishly exploiting the poor and not benefiting them in any way.

Personally, on my trips to El Salvador and Peru, I did feel at times more like a tourist than a volunteer. Our host families and guides made sure to take us on mini-vacations to sightsee and enjoy local cuisines. While this is a perk that I enjoyed, I can see how this element can detract from the overarching goal of serving the local communities.

  • You would be doing more harm than good.

To elaborate on the previous point, some argue that overseas medical service trips actually do more harm than good. Opponents of voluntourism argue that it is a form of modern colonialism and paternalism, in which volunteers assert themselves as the beneficiaries of grateful and passive recipients. A recent Huffington Post article on this subject cited a study by sociologist Judith Lasker who found that global health volunteering is more beneficial to the sending organizations and volunteers than to the host community. Volunteers attend these trips hoping to boost their CVs while locals’ needs are not actually being addressed. This is not to say that all medical service trips are more harmful than good, but rather than there is evidence that some trips are not truly fruitful.

I recommend, before you go on a trip, thoroughly researching the efforts of your particular organization and judge whether the organization is tangibly making a difference in the communities being served.

  • The trip is too costly.

A practical reason for not going on a medical service trip is that it are simply too expensive. I personally paid around three thousand dollars to attend each of the service trips abroad. The cost covers housing, transportation, and food for the trips. It also includes the cost of the roundtrip flights (which we had to book ourselves). I realize that I am privileged in being able to afford these trips, and that some may not have the same financial means to attend these trips. In my experience, fundraising as a club makes very little difference in reducing the cost of the trip. Therefore, you may decide that the cost of going on the trip to outweighs the benefit of going on the trip.

  • You would have too little time to actually make a difference.

The reality is that a week-long service trip will not allow you to make the same difference as you would in a long-term service trip. At most, you will be able to participate in one-day activities such as classroom demonstrations, medical campaigns, health check-ups in clinics, etc. As a whole, assuming that the organizations have a constant stream of volunteers, your efforts play into the grander scheme of things. However, as one individual in an isolated week-long trip, you may not have as large of an impact on the health of the communities as you’d like.

In summary, I would argue that going on a medical service trip requires a well-rounded understanding of cultural competence, the risks of “voluntourism” and “poverty porn”, and a sincere desire to improve the health of locals while gaining valuable clinical experience and global health exposure abroad. I hope that this article gives you a balanced understanding of the risks and benefits of attending a medical service trip and that you use these points to make an informed decision to attend a trip.

Ariel Lee

Ariel Lee is a graduate of Brandeis University in the class of 2018 with a B.S. in Biology and Anthropology. She is medical student in the class of 2023. Her areas of interest include: geriatrics, end-of-life care, and the intersection of spirituality and medicine. In addition to writing for Prospective Doctor, she runs a blog at lightandsalt.org, where she writes on her journey in the Christian faith and other personal reflections.

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