Monthly Archives: March 2012

Short term volunteer trips: the global health dilemma

By Lawrence Loh, MD MPH

When it comes to short-term volunteerism, young professionals from all stripes are keen to make a difference abroad. Speaking to the issue of global health, which our organization is most familiar with, numerous studies have shown that young health-care professionals in training and recently out of training express an interest in altruistic work abroad with indigent populations. These young physicians, nurses, pharmacists, dentists, allied health and public health professionals today live in a modern world with internet and communications links that bring the worldwide need for their skills into stark focus, with a globally interconnected transport system that opens the doors to these opportunities like no other time in human history.

But at the same time, modern professional training in these fields have saddled many of these young professionals with crushing debts. Training demands and vacation restrictions limit the amount of time they are able to invest in their passions, which in turn keeps them from gaining valuable experience needed to incorporate global health into their career. And often times, despite the sea of plenty, there is a difficulty locating opportunities; most opportunities are not well publicized and often come up by chance, through word of mouth or a fortuitous strike online. Translating these experiences into sustained careers is also challenging, as many entry positions into the global health world often have significant demands for experience and credentials that starting young professionals may not have. At the same time, if all the young professional has had opportunity for is short-term trips (ranging 14-90 days abroad), the global health community tends to look on such experiences with muted disinterest at best, and disdain at worst.

So young health professionals pursuing such dreams to make a difference fall into two categories. The lucky ones, who either strike a scholarship lottery or come from families well off, are able to take gap years and gain the necessary experience abroad, but this in turn delays the completion of their training. Since remuneration and finances are not an issue, it’s just a matter of time, and they invest in it and eventually end up within the very community they are striving to make a difference in.

But for the vast majority of young professionals who want to make a difference, they’re not as fortunate. They may have the passion and skills and desire to help, but with their limited finances and time, they do most of their global health work off the side of their desks. These young professionals invest what limited money and time they have access to, leveraging their lines of credit and their spare vacations, in order to pull together enough short-term experiences that might help them network or land an opportunity. Much like actors trying to “make it”, these youngsters deeply invest in the hopes that they’ll someday land a job that pays them to do what they’re passionate about – about making a difference to the people abroad.

The result is that short-term trips are increasing in popularity, since they are the only option available to real people who have real jobs and can’t afford the time and money it would take to volunteer abroad for years on end. It thus falls to us to figure out how to make these experiences valuable and viable for these young professionals – how to make sure that growing short-term medical trips are beneficial for the communities abroad, for the organizations doing them, and for the young professionals pursuing them.

By coordinating such trips, we can make it easier for the young professional to figure out where the opportunities are. Got a week off in May and there’s six trips going to three different places that need a nurse or doctor? Sold. The website shows the ongoing projects, which the young professional can read up on to prepare for the trip. When they arrive there, they can lend their expertise as planned towards a shared, common effort; and when they return home, they can keep contributing remotely by monitoring the project online, sharing and discussing ideas, and even signing up for a return on another vacation week at a future date. They get to be part of something bigger than just going on a “do good” vacation for a week, and their investment is ultimately maximized.

Of course, the biggest concern with any work abroad is the idea that the community abroad must benefit – being already vulnerable and challenged. Once we link young professionals to the opportunities they seek (and the experience they ultimately need and gain by participating both on-site short term and remotely), we must make sure that the communities abroad also benefit. Our next post will discuss just how they’ll benefit from coordinated short-term volunteer work.

Dr. Lawrence Loh is Chief Medical Officer of The 53rd Week, and a physician in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Short-term volunteer trips: coordination, collaboration, cooperation

By Lawrence Loh, MD MPH

In our previous entry, we talked a bit about how the short-term volunteer trips are generally felt to be low impact, especially by the global health community. After all, how can anyone accomplish anything in just one week abroad? How can one learn about the local community, overcome cultural and logistical barriers, quickly assess the situation and develop a remedy in just 14 short days? It is this mindset and thinking that has left current short-term efforts ignored by bigger organizations, and tackled by smaller organizations that barely have the resources to actually make things work.

From week to week, at a local level, teams from all over the world visit communities abroad. Uncoordinated efforts result in duplication and wastage. Some teams do things one way; others have other ideas, naturally. Reversals occur and status quo is maintained by well-meaning people. Young professionals are constrained by time and finances to going on these trips, but leave feeling good about what they did – and just remembering a wonderful vacation without being able to follow-up or keep up to date with where their project is going.

Now imagine a properly coordinated locale with a functioning web platform specifically designed to coordinate a string of consecutive weeks. Take every week at a local level, fill it with its own autonomous, hard-working, passionate team – and give the wider volunteer community a common database. A list of protocols, inventory, and a schedule that would let them plan exactly when they’re heading down and read up before they even get there. An online library with a general primer and information that gets updated in real-time.

For the teams, it all starts with the schedule, connecting them with the contact information for the team preceding their visit, who can share with them what is already on the ground there, and what projects are on the go. They get this information ahead of time: needed meds and supplies, progress of shared projects, and ideas for follow-up before they even land on the ground. While they’re there, they link with the other teams abroad to rely on their shared knowledge, and they put in the work towards a long-lasting, effective, sustainable project instead of handing out pills and mismatched charity goods. Then they return home, passing on the cycle by posting their own findings, ideas and thoughts on their trip. They remain connected when they come back and add to the instantly available expertise that teams on the ground rely on. And they work with the local leadership to figure out what projects and plans will work for the local community – and how to get everyone to agree on those common goals.

For the local community, it means improvement and development and a voice. They lead the discussions on the web platform. They engage. They tell what the community needs, and the teams work on meeting that. And the website drives recruitment and programming: engineering projects are able to source engineers for teams heading down by advertising widely and finding someone with a schedule match. Instead of just acute care medicine, teams work to develop health promotion programs or implement basic public health measures that prevent disease instead of providing care that does little to change the underlying factors that made the local citizen sick in the first place.

Ultimately, young professionals also benefit. No more floundering around with a free week and wondering how to make a difference. The web platform allows them to easily access potential opportunities. They can figure out which projects have teams that are heading down to a locale of interest during their one or two weeks of vacation. And because of the bigger goals targeted by these projects, they can get involved in something that is having impact, and still remain as remote participants after their two weeks are done. Any amount of time they can spare is cherished and put towards good, rather than demanding large financial and time sacrifices that they simply cannot afford at the start of their career. You got a free week? Here’s a project – and it’s more than just handing out pills. It’s working to build something bigger than each individual volunteer, each individual team.

That’s the idea of The 53rd week. Individually, a week abroad can only do so much. 52 weeks abroad uncoordinated are just that, 52 weeks. But put them altogether, and something extra, bigger, larger than the individual can collectively occur. Everyone wins – the teams that invest their efforts and money; the young professional looking for valuable, pertinent experience; and most importantly, the local community abroad which benefits from realistic, sustainable, long-term goals over acute, short-term efforts.

Short-term efforts can make a difference. They just have to be part of a bigger picture. And what is that bigger picture? Where does this lead us? What are we looking at?

Our next post will consider the wider phenomenon of who are these people that are going on short term trips, and why they do it.

Dr. Lawrence Loh is Chief Medical Officer of The 53rd Week, and a physician in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Short-term volunteer trips: maximizing value

By Lawrence Loh, MD MPH

Short-term volunteer trips have grown immensely in popularity among young professionals in the industralized world. Driven by an the interconnected nature of today’s world in both communications and transport technology, young professionals are more aware than ever of the disparities and issues facing indigent populations in the developing world. However, paradoxically, such young professionals are often saddled with debt, time constraints, and an inability to find opportunities easily at the start of their careers, limiting their ability to contribute despite their passion and interest.

Constrained by these demands, young professionals are unable to commit to volunteerism abroad for long periods of time, and instead look for short term opportunities abroad where they can use vacation time or academic leave to make a difference. This in turn has its own perils – how much of an impact are these experiences really having? Many global health and global volunteerism folks have dismissed short-term trips out of hand – what can one really accomplish in one to two weeks abroad? What more harms could be done by having communities grow dependent? And worse, what if all those well-meaning volunteers who visit prioritize things differently, do things differently, reverse or contradict each other’s efforts?

These are the difficult questions that the global volunteerism community has not yet answered. As short-term volunteer teams visit and provide everything from health care, educational opportunities, development assistance, and construction work, legions of well-meaning young professionals put deeply personal investments of time and money into these efforts. In that sense, uncoordinated short-term outreach trips are the placebo of global volunteerism: communities abroad feel good, participants feel good, but very little actually changes.

The 53rd Week’s goal is to change this and deliver value to all involved.

Unlike those in the global health and global volunteerism community that dismiss such short-term work out of hand, we are cognizant of the fact that more and more young professionals are seeking to make a difference abroad, and that short-term trips are the only means available to them. We know that millions of dollars and volunteer hours go into these short-term trips every year and that the outcomes are minimal, and with the pressures faced by young professionals, this phenomenon is only going to grow.

It’s time to stop ignoring the potential of short-term volunteer trips, and to find a better way to maximize them – for the participants, the organizations they serve, and most importantly, for the local communities abroad.

In our next blog, we’ll talk about just how we plan to do that.

Dr. Lawrence Loh is Chief Medical Officer of The 53rd Week, and a physician in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.