Last Updated on June 26, 2022 by Laura Turner
Although repeated to the point of being cliche, “to help people” is one of the most popular answers would-be doctors give when asked why they want to go into medicine. The great news is that there are many humanitarian work opportunities for pre-med students, med students and even new doctors to undertake that will not only hone their clinical skills and make them more culturally competent physicians, but also allow them to give medical care to those who might not otherwise receive it.
The following institutions are ones that give medical students at every stage in their career this unique and life-changing opportunity.
Why Physicians and Medical Students Volunteer
Events like natural disasters, civil unrest, refugee crises and simply the poverty and isolation in many areas of the developing world means that there is an almost constant (and largely unmet) need for medical care. This might seem overwhelming, but physicians as well as medical and pre-med students can help by volunteering in a number of programs that can give them great clinical experiences and increase their knowledge of patient care across culture/linguistic/ethnic boundaries.
For students who are still thinking about applying to medical school, an additional attraction to many of these programs is that they can help a medical school application stand out from the very competitive crowd of fellow applicants – and working in the sometimes less than ideal conditions can help undecided students figure out if a career in medicine is truly right for them. While pre-med or undecided students won’t be working with the autonomy of, for example, a 4th year medical student or a physician, their impact can still be felt and they can gain important clinical skills and insights not available any other way.
Some of the more popular ways that students get this kind of international experience is through specific medical schools who often include the chance to serve overseas as an optional part of their training program. The American Medical Association also has physician service opportunities available. Apart from this, however, there is a wide variety of private or non-governmental organizations to choose from, such as the ones below.
If you are interested in combining medical care for those in need with sea-faring adventure, this is definitely a program to check out. This program was named after the floating hospital, the SS Hope, which was staffed by volunteer physicians, nurses and other medical professionals and sailed around the world until 1974, when the care became more land-based. However, Project HOPE returned to its roots in 2005 when it paired with the US Navy. It’s first project brought aid to the survivors of the devastating tsunami which rocked Southeast Asia. Since that time, Project HOPE had worked on more than 30 missions all across the globe, including locations in Africa, the Americas, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.
The nature of the work for these projects varies greatly, but the overall goals include the promotion of wellness, disease prevention, and aid during natural or other disasters. It is also committed to the delivery of medical supplies to areas in need and to support local healthcare workers who are part of the community already and working for its improvement.
Another excellent program to consider is Projects Abroad, which offers medical internships, medical elective and preferred medical placements for students at any stage in their medical career, whether premed or medical students or full-fledged physicians. For premed or medical students especially, this is a great opportunity to gain valuable medical experience and a better knowledge of health and health care challenges in developing countries. The level of the program intensity and the nature of the work you do will depend on whether you are a pre-med student, a first- or second-year medical student or a third- or fourth-year medical student.
However, this is also a great idea for students who are interested in medicine but do not necessarily know if this career is right for them. Projects Abroad is perfect for this, as students do not need to have any medical experience to go on one of these projects and will receive training and experience during the program.
There are opportunities available in over 20 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe and you can choose from a variety of specialties depending on your interest, including midwifery, physical, occupational or speech therapy, nursing, dentistry or other medical areas.
This program offers a variety of programs (not just in medical areas but in areas like education, childcare and wildlife conservation) that will give you the opportunity to gain great clinical experience while providing badly needed medical care all over the world.
Volunteering Solutions offers two different kinds of experiences which are specifically aimed at those with a medical background: medical volunteering and medical internships.
Medical volunteers work in either clinics or non-profit/government-associated hospitals and practice in general medicine. This volunteer program is hands-on and allows volunteers to do procedures like medical checkups, medication administration and other basic functions. For these positions, 3rd or 4th year medical students or newly graduated doctors or nurses are preferred.
Medical internships take place exclusively at private hospitals and give the intern a chance to shadow the doctor in order to see how patient care is handled in a particular country and learn about difference in medical practice. For this position, pre-medical students are preferred and it is a great opportunity for those at this stage in their medical training to get a feel for the day to day practice as a physician.
As an example, Volunteer Solutions offers a medical volunteer program in Cusco, Peru, where workers experience work in clinics that serve the needy in the area and perform procedures like suturing wounds and other wound care, administering medications and doing other basic procedures. This is perfect for pre-med students and provides significant clinical experience at this critical stage in your training.
Agape Volunteers special in service mainly in Africa and put a strong emphasis on medical volunteer work. As a matter of fact, you have to have completely at least one year of medical school before you can volunteer with this program. The experience, however, can be incredibly rewarding.
One of the most popular programs is called Kenya Medical, where you will serve in an Agape-assisted medical clinic or hospital to help service the needs of both rural and urban poor. Your first week will simply be a matter of shadowing a local doctor to better understanding the difference in African patient care. After that, you will be working with patients with infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS or tuberculosis as well as basic doctoring like doing rounds, dressing wounds and performing basic medication administration. At night, the clinic becomes a maternity ward and you are welcome to stay for an overnight shift that ends at daybreak and, although it is tiring, can be incredibly rewarding, too.
Church Health Care Internship Program
If you want to make a difference in the world while advancing your medical training but cannot afford to leave the United States, there are plenty of programs you can choose to accomplish this right here in your own home country, since there are still plenty of underserved communities in America itself who may live far away from clinics or hospitals or may not be able to afford medical services.
The Church Health Care International, which was established in 1984, is the largest faith-based organization within the United States. This clinic has a long and proud tradition of serving poor and/or uninsured families by providing them with quality medical care. In order to save costs, the clinic hires premedical students taking a gap year to help give patient care to needy families right here in the United States.
While going abroad to do humanitarian work in areas like housing or education is also rewarding, medical training allows you unique opportunities to help improve healthcare access all over the world. In short, whether you are a seasoned 3rd or 4th year medical student or simply someone with an interest in seeing whether clinical care is right for you, volunteering in the developing countries is a great way to build your patient skills while seeing more of the world and also getting the chance to care for people who healthcare needs are both great and generally unmet. These kinds of programs can enhance your job satisfaction no matter what stage of your career you are in.
Agape Volunteers. 2016.
Church Healthcare Internship Program. 2016.
Prep, V. Premeds, Physicians can Help Meet Global Medical Needs. U.S. News and World Reports. 2012.
Projects Abroad. 2016.
Project Hope. 2016.
Volunteering Solutions. 2016.
Brian Wu, MD, Ph.D., MNM, graduated from the University of Maryland with a Bachelor’s of Science in Physiology and Neurobiology, and graduated from the Keck School of Medicine (University of Southern California) with an MD with a focus on holistic care and treatment. He currently holds a Ph.D. in integrative biology and disease for his research in exercise physiology and rehabilitation.