Medical missions give doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers the opportunity "to help people" in the way they dreamed of when they were kids. Medical missions bring hope to the more than three billion people throughout the world who live without basic healthcare services. The World Health Organization states that 83 countries face a health workforce crisis. Each of these countries has fewer than 23 health workers (doctors, nurses, midwives) per 10,000 people, which is the basic threshold. Medical missions aim to bridge that gap.
Volunteers for medical missions are true heroes to those in need. Before medical missionaries for Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) went to Point Pedro Hospital in Sri Lanka — a hospital serving 150,000 people in an area of armed conflict — there was no surgeon, no anesthetist, and no emergency physician. Other medical missions have done everything from vaccinating people in El Salvador in the wake of Hurricane Mitch, to giving babies in Zambia their first check-ups, to helping Bosnian children use art therapy to deal with the destruction they have witnessed.
There are also opportunities to work with local healthcare professionals who want to improve their conversational English and learn professional terminology. Some medical missions require previous international health experience or fluency in the local language. Ingenuity is always required because medical supplies, equipment, and medicine will be in short supply. The greatest requirement for a medical mission, however, is a sincere desire to put your skills to use in a region in desperate need of your services.
I Did This!
- Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) delivers emergency aid to people affected by armed conflict, epidemics, natural or man-made disasters, or exclusion from health care in more than 60 countries. Volunteers for its medical missions work alongside locally hired staff to provide medical care. Doctors Without Borders is looking for physicians, surgeons, anesthesiologists, registered nurses, nurse practitioners, certified nurse-midwives, midwives, mental health specialists, laboratory scientists and technicians, epidemiologists, logisticians, water and sanitation logisticians, and administrators. Basic requirements for Doctors Without Borders' medical missions include at least two years of professional experience, availability for a minimum of 9-12 months (sometimes shorter assignments are available for surgeons, anesthesiologists, OB/GYNs, nurses, and nurse anesthetists), flexibility, no recent gap in clinical experience greater than two years, and relevant travel or work outside the United States. Language skills (especially French) are a great plus.
- Health Volunteers Overseas is a teaching and training organization that coordinates medical missions for specialists in: Anesthesia, Dermatology, Hand Surgery, Hematology, Internal Medicine, Nurse Anesthesia, Nursing Education, Oncology, Oral Health, Orthopedics, Pediatrics, Physical Therapy, Pharmacy, Mental Health, Emergency Medicine, and Wound Care and Lymphedema Management. Medical missions are available in 25 resource-poor nations in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. Most assignments last one month, though some longer and shorter projects are available. Volunteers pay for transportation to and from a program site, but select sites provide room, board, and daily transportation for volunteers once they arrive.
- International Medical Corps seeks medical personnel for emergency situations and general assignments. Emergency response professionals are needed to be "on call" to mobilize on short notice for disaster relief assignments that can range in duration for a minimum of 2-8 weeks. General medical missions provide care and training in areas such as maternal and child care, HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases, primary care, mental health, nutrition and agriculture, and sanitation and hygiene. Non-medical volunteers are needed as well.
- AMIGOS offers medical missions for high school and college students (at least 16 years old by September 1st of the year of volunteer service). These 6-8 week summer projects in Latin America involve home improvement measures, health education, and (light) construction of health-related facilities. Students typically live with families in small communities in rural and semi-urban areas and work with 2-3 other AMIGOS
To consider more possibilities, The International Medical Volunteers Association Directory lists dozens of organizations that seek medical or medical support personnel to help carry out humanitarian missions.