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.

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3 thoughts on “Short term volunteer trips: the global health dilemma

  1. Thanks for sharing such a useful post regarding the short term volunteer trips

  2. Dogooder says:

    I identify with this article being in the present predicament of wanting to travel abroad where my
    public health skills can make a real difference, and the weight of having to keep a job in an area I don’t fancy to keep a roof over my head and food on the table.

    • the53rdweek says:

      It’s always the old question of: what pays me, I do not love; what I love does not pay me… it just calls for a greater need for governments to commit to improving global health funding and allow those who are skilful and able to help in this department to support meaningful efforts abroad as well as at home!

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