Assessing the quality of a short-term medical volunteer opportunity

October 16, 2016 | Christopher Dainton

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The quality standards of medical mission trips have become a constant concern for global health advocates. Too often, clinicians must rely largely on luck and word of mouth to find high quality volunteer opportunities abroad, since there are no commonly used tools in current use to objectively assess the quality of short-term trips.

Medical Service Trip aims to link clinicians and trainees with high quality short-term medical missions. We hope to encourage volunteering for truly effective medical service trips (MSTs), while providing all NGOs with the tools to ensure positive impact on host communities.

A jungle village in the Oriente, Ecuador
A jungle village in the Oriente, Ecuador

Our approach to rating is based on this goal, and relies on recommendations advanced by published experts in the field. Below, we describe how we ensure that our evaluation framework is useful, objective, and transparent.

What criteria must a MST meet to be rated?

The organization must provide short-term (1 month duration or less), primary care medical volunteer opportunities in Latin America or the Caribbean.

How do we rate MSTs?

We looked at the most common expert suggestions for operating a high quality medical mission, and developed a preliminary framework for quality. The framework evaluates an MST in six major areas: sustainability, preparedness, impact and safety, efficiency, education, and cost effectiveness. We welcome your feedback.


The framework is adapted from the following key sources:

1. Maki, J., Qualls, M., White, B., Kleefield, S., & Crone, R. 2008. Health impact assessment and short-term medical missions: A methods study to evaluate quality of care. BMC Health Services Research, 8, 121.

2. Lasker, N.J. 2016. Hoping to Help: the promises and pitfalls of global health volunteering. New York, NY: Cornell University Press.

3. Seager, G. 2012. When healthcare hurts: an evidence based guide for best practices in global health initiatives.

4. Roche, S, Keetheeswaran, P, Worth, V.  2016. International short-term medical missions: a systematic review of recommended practices. International Journal of Public Health.

How do we calculate the overall score and star rating?

The overall score is calculated as an average of the MST’s scores on each of the six major domains.

What do our ratings mean?

Our ratings are intended to improve the quality and quantity of information available to clinicians interested in a volunteer experience abroad. Clinicians can be more confident that their investment of time and resources will be channeled towards positive outcomes in host communities.

Our ratings are not rankings, as it is still unclear how important each factor is in comparison to others. We encourage you to do your own research, and invite you to join our expert panel to provide your valued feedback.

What other information do we present on the MSTs we evaluate?

Many MSTs operate in highly varied settings. This means different countries, in settings that range from urban to remote, and in both mobile and established clinics. Presenting this information provides a more accurate reflection of how well an MST might meet the needs of the host community.

How current will our ratings be?

We plan to post the last date that an MST rating was updated. To promote ownership, both organization administrators and past volunteers will be able to rate or update their own NGOs at any time using the framework.

How do we plan to rate MSTs with multiple affiliates?

Some organizations have one public name, but multiple chapters, in particular, those in universities. Others may have vastly different operations across multiple Latin American countries. Where possible, we will treat organizations as a unified parent organization, but will consider separating the organizations on a case by case basis.

How do we plan to evaluate our rating system?

We plan assess the reliability of our framework – that is to say the tendency for independent raters to consistently arrive at the same scores for an NGO. If you have previous experience on short-term MSTs, contact us on this site to join our expert panel and help us develop this framework.




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