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How to serve a medical mission

How to serve a medical mission

You probably have colleagues who’ve served medical missions in the past, and you may even be interested in the opportunity yourself — but do you know how to make it happen? We’ve organized all the details so you can find an organization and a unique way to give back. Find out in the sections below how to serve a medical mission:

Choosing a location for your medical mission

When deciding on the right place to serve a medical mission, consider:

  • Your interests
  • Medical training
  • Family history and interests in heritage
  • Places you’ve always wanted to visit
  • The time you have available
  • The season when you’d like to travel

You may already have a specific country or type of mission in mind, but it’s important to think about your goals for the trip as well to figure out the right location.

“I always ask [providers] for their personal passion and look at what their overall goal is. Sometimes they’re looking for a particular location, and sometimes they’re looking for a particular style of trip,” says Shauna King, founder and president of International Medical Relief. “We also need a timeframe. We have many missions that are short-term, and we have trips that are a week long. Are they making this a huge vacation and bringing their family? Or is this like a quick weekend thing where they just want to kind of get their feet wet? All those factors help to determine the location. “

Amy Jordheim, medical advisory board chair at International Medical Relief, says she also asks providers about the patient load they can handle and the types of patients they like to treat.

“I ask them to tell me what they love, why they want to go on this trip, what is important to them. Then we talk about it, and I give them different options and scenarios,” she says. “It’s overwhelming, I think, for people to try to decide from the big picture, but once you get them to narrow it down, it becomes very clear to them very quickly.”

Deciding which medical mission organization to work with

Sarah Ehlers, cofounder of the nonprofit A Broader View Volunteers, recommends working with nonprofit organizations so you can verify the cost and expenses and see where the organization is using the money.

Serving a medical mission

“Check GuideStar, which is a nonprofit service organization referral. At A Broader View, we don’t hesitate to put volunteers in contact with alumni so they can talk about their experience. They get a better understanding of what a medical mission is and what the entire experience would be like before they make a final decision,” Sarah says. “We encourage tons of research and provide documentation and general expectations, packing lists, immunizations, information about navigating airports, and sample itineraries.”

Other important factors to look for in an organization include:

  • Licensing
  • Insurance to protect volunteers and patients
  • Sustainability (look at how many years the company has been in business)
  • Ground staff available for follow-up patient care
  • Safety during the mission

“Look at organizations that work directly with the World Health Organization, which captures data and provides those statistics to the local health bureaus. You also want an organization that values clinic skills, where titles are left at the door and everybody collaborates very closely in clinics to provide expertise for patients,” Amy says. “Look at organizations that are broad enough in their provider base to provide the expertise that these patients need. Consider not just what the organization provides to the volunteer but what our clinic setup provides for the volunteer and patient to function in a quiet, professional environment.”

Weighing the length and cost of medical missions

The length of your medical mission will vary depending on what the organization offers and the time you have available, but it can range anywhere from a few days to several months. This also depends on whether you only want to volunteer or also want to explore the area.

“If providers go on very short trips, there is no sightseeing included. We’re very focused on the clinical aspect, but in the evenings they can expect to maybe stop at a sightseeing venue or get an ox cart ride or maybe join the village for dinner,” Amy says. “All of the places we partner with give back in a very cultural way by providing a meal or having people come to their homes for tea after clinic. Often the school kids get up a band to welcome you when you get off your bus.”

Shauna notes that most medical providers are using their vacation time for medical missions and only have one or two weeks to volunteer. However, longer trips are available as well.

“When we’ve had doctors or nurses who were in-between jobs or on a sabbatical or changing career focus, we’ve had medical providers in projects as long as a month or two,” she says. “We try to offer everybody an opportunity based on when they are available to participate.”

The cost varies by the length of the mission and the organization you travel with, but short trips start around $750-$900 and longer ones can be $5,000, not including airfare. When planning your trip, find out whether clinic fees, meals, and other supplies are included. Some organizations offer in-house scholarships or ways to save money. Fundraising donations providers receive when working with nonprofits are also tax-deductible.

Preparing for a medical mission

Sarah recommends preparing for a medical mission three to six months before you leave.

Medical mission to Kong Roh Islands, Cambodia

“This allows you plenty of prep time. For most of these trips, you are required to have immunizations, and some countries require visas,” she says. “Plenty of prep time is necessary to participate in one of these international trips.”

If you suddenly realize you have time off to fill and already have a passport, however, companies can work with your schedule. Amy notes that many countries have e-visas to speed up the process and their organization’s connection to the Ministry of Health streamlines communication as well.

“We give providers disclosures on the vaccinations required, and they get the information they need almost immediately upon joining the team,” she says. “They also get a personal call from their team leader so the leader can answer any questions.”

Shauna recommends finding an organization with training tools in place so you get enough information no matter how quickly you’re planning a trip.

“We have provider guidelines and provider practice, a lot of written material that’s been vetted and approved by the medical board. We’re very confident that the materials we have will get providers to a place of ease in our clinic, even if it looks different in scope than their normal practice on a day-to-day basis,” Shauna says.

What to expect when you get to your medical mission

Once you embark on your medical mission, you’ll usually have a meet-and-greet at the airport and an orientation with medical staff you’ll be working with. Staff will help you get familiar with the community, get settled in your accommodations, and know what to expect. They’ll also explain how to exchange money, find stores to buy sim cards or cell phones, and buy any last-minute supplies.

“Groups organizing a medical mobile clinic or outreach clinic will have time to set up the clinic, usually separating in different areas like registration, triage, and exam. If the group brought medications, there might be a pharmacy and counseling area,” Sarah says. “The tents and the set-up can be arranged, and there will be team members and translators available so you can sort of have a game plan before all the patients come in.”

If your mission is a week or less, volunteer work will start as soon as possible, but you’ll have free time in the evenings and on the weekend. Make sure to ask questions early so you have an idea of the schedule and the tasks ahead of you.

Starting your journey to a medical mission

A medical mission is a great way to get back to the roots of medicine while expanding your clinical and personal experience — and it’s easier than you might think!

“Take the opportunity to go. Sometimes when providers decide to go they are retiring and they have the time, but their medical license is expiring so they only get to go on one trip. They always say, ‘I wish I would have done this earlier,’” Shauna says. “Seize the day. Take the opportunity to really just go for it.”

Interested in learning more about serving a medical mission? Check out these stories about CompHealth physicians who recently volunteered in Kenya and Cambodia with help from a Making a Difference Foundation grant. Connect with this foundation to plan your own medical mission by calling 866.608.1322 or emailing information@makingadifferencefdn.org.

About the author

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Lindsay Wilcox

Lindsay Wilcox is a healthcare writer and editor with more than 10 years of professional writing experience. When she's not circling typos, she's enjoying fish tacos and hanging out with her family.

3 Comments

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  • As a physician with more than forty years of practice experience in General Surgery and Emergency Medicine, and as a physician with more than a few “missions” under his belt, I want to commend CompHealth for this article. It was well research and covered the subject well. Thank you for emailing material that is useful to those of us interested in international work and giving back to help our fellow men (and women).

  • Excellent article. I run CardioStart International which provides free pediatric and adult cardiac surgery to disadvantaged locations around the world. Recent projects include Tanzania, Ecuador and Dominican Republic. If appropriate, please include us in your list.

    Aubyn Marath MBBS MS FRCSEd
    Pediatric & Adult Cardiac Surgeon.
    President

  • ..You want to make a difference in the world? Do what I did…take all of your medical skills and join the military and travel throughout the hot spots of the world and save lives of the native people and our hero who risk their lives to make America safe…….you will never look back!

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