Getting closer

By Lawrence Loh, MD MPH

While the blog may have fallen silent for the past few weeks, the team at The 53rd Week continues to work on optimizing the outcomes of short-term medical (and volunteer) trips abroad. During the recent American Public Health Association conference in San Francisco, I had the opportunity to meet with a number of young professionals who all expressed an interest in doing work abroad, while presenting research with some colleagues, a paper that examined barriers to physician participation in global heath careers, and another that categorized potential global health areas of practice by physician specialty.

In all our discussions, it did strike me that many young, interested global health professionals are facing the same time and financial crunch that we’ve being describing. Thus, even though they knew it was “wrong”, many did travel abroad on short-term trips. Many still had questions as to the value of what they were doing, and on learning about our paradigm, expressed interest and hope that things would work out.

At the same time, leaders of the global health field expressed the same dismissive view towards short-term trips. One even told me that his goal was to get as *few* people going abroad as possible – and that instead, he would rather have everyone learn about global health issues at home, in their medical school curriculum or at the hospital, without forging out beyond. Yet this faculty himself participates in work abroad, and goes abroad quite commonly.

My simple question, therefore: why him, and why not us? For the longest time that people have decided to ignore the growth in interest of short-term medical trips and volunteer work abroad, the question I have is – why? I believe most of us in the West live in a society that doesn’t just value charity and altruism, but also respects the right of people to decide what they want to spend their time on and how they are best able to do that. Given the challenges and opportunities that young professionals face today, those who want to build on that charity and altruism abroad will undoubtedly choose to participate in short-term medical trips.

As we’ve said before, in their current form, such trips are a detriment to the community. But we need to stop ignoring it. If people are going to go abroad, if they are going to exercise their fundamental right to put their desire to help in a trip abroad, we need to support that, improve it, maximize benefits, and minimize harms.

In all, it was a fulfilling meeting. There is certainly a growing divide, though, between the younger generation of global health professionals that are living the new paradigm, and the older generation who remain unconvinced of the potential that lies in optimizing such short-term opportunities.


In other news, planning for our upcoming trip to the Dominican Republic is going smoothly. We have a team of 21 people from all over the United States and Canada who will be joining us over the New Year’s break in La Romana. Much as we try to push ideas upstream, our team will provide the usual clinical care, but also has identified a few projects to tackle, including:

  • Needs assessment to be placed on the newly built website platform;
  • Medical Spanish phrasebook;
  • Cost-benefit analysis for short-term medical trips as well as alternatives (improved trips, for example)
  • Curriculum of training for local residents and interns to be fulfilled by visiting medical teams

Our multidisciplinary team is keen on seeing sustainable, longer-term outcomes to fuel our development model.

We hope to allow interested young professionals to participate at a reduce cost through fundraising. Any support is greatly appreciated. Our goal is to raise $5000 to help worthy candidates learn more about a collaborative short-term model and work to improve the outcomes related to the short-term volunteer paradigm and phenomenon.

For more information on how to donate, visit us here. Any amount is appreciated.

Lawrence Loh is Chief Medical Officer of The 53rd Week.

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