Medical + volunteering + Latin America

September 11, 2017 | Christopher Dainton

I finished my residency program in 2009. With that milestone behind me, I was finally free to chart my own path. Like many healthcare professionals, that path involved travel and a vague desire to somehow do good – although it wasn’t immediately clear how, or to what end. I decided to volunteer abroad, and typing medical + volunteering + Latin America into Google seemed to be as efficient a way as any to find what I was looking for.

MSF volunteering picture
I assume you mean volunteering with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) or Doctors Without Borders?

At first, I did. Many physicians do. But after one informational meeting, it was clear that MSF was not for me. I had a six figure medical school debt to pay off. Being deployed overseas for six months or more was just not an option.

In retrospect, it was almost inevitable that my Google search would lead me to a short-term service trip. There were hundreds of organizations willing to send individual volunteers and groups to remote areas in Latin America for little more than a week or two at a time.

I found a directory of medical missions, and ended up traveling to Guatemala with Timmy Global Health. We spent a week treating patients in mobile clinics set up in remote communities in the mountains. It was a powerful experience.

Timmy volunteering picture
Buyer’s remorse?

One might think that spending close to $11000 in opportunity costs and practicing medicine on human beings in another country would be a highly structured, regulated process. Not so much. It was ultimately a matter of luck that I had ended up with an NGO that was relatively well-run and organized.

Some NGOs have strong partnerships and are fully integrated into the communities they serve. Others simply parachute in, their clinicians distributing medications to villagers of limited means, and then vanish without a trace. It’s a big problem. But most lie somewhere between these two extremes.

best_burgers_in_town_grunge_style_poster-r6c1d4ddb10b74823a69511f16a7549a0_xobxm_8byvr_324
Who sells the best burger in town? Who sells the worst burger?

Volunteers are conscientious people. After all, those who are charitable enough to contribute their time and money also want to know how to volunteer responsibly.

But I had no idea what I should be looking for. As I learned later, even had I known what information I should be looking for, there would have been no way to find it.

Worse still, all NGOs are well-intentioned, and have a hard time objectively assessing their strengths and weaknesses. Asking an NGO to assess their program would be like asking a restauranteur how good their burgers are.

Best practices for medical missions and global health experiences
So what information is important?

We came up with eighteen best practices that volunteers, experts, and program directors all agreed are important for a medical volunteering organization. Then we turned those items into a scoring system for volunteers to compare the many NGOs involved in medical projects abroad.

We want volunteers to use this directory to easily see how their chosen NGO stacks up against the others. And we want them to help future volunteers by rating NGOs after the trip is over. Yelp for medical missions? Maybe in spirit, but we’re hoping this is something even better.

Uyuni The Yelp Inc. logo is displayed in the window of a restaurant in New York

So what’s next?

Over a hundred organizations have participated in our process so far, and we can’t thank them enough. And for the challenges, we want to know how to make our rating system even more useful. We want to hear from you.

1. How should we handle NGOs that run different programs in different countries?
2. Are the questions clear and unambiguous?
3. How should the results be weighted, and how should disputes be resolved?

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