EmploymentSocial Issues

Medical “Voluntourism” Amongst Youth



“In an exotic destination!”

Words of such unmatched glory and benevolence are hard to say no to, aren’t they? These advertising tactics, routinely used by organizations that encourage high school and pre-med students alike to volunteer abroad are often too enticing to resist. They unrealistically paint a picture of simple medical practices, playing on the intrinsic benefits that volunteering brings: the networking opportunities, the new experiences, even just feelings of charity and accomplishment. Where the topic of international volunteer programs is concerned, this misleading focus is heightened: most high school students haven’t yet experienced weeks-long stays away from home in a different country, much less in an entirely different continent.

Such “exotic destinations” are also places where medical help is most vital. Lack of health care professionals and proper resources has made countries such as Ghana, Mexico and Jamaica a hotbed of high mortality rates and injuries. Volunteers are often welcomed with open arms in these countries, as long as they can help, even marginally, to alleviate the medical pressure on the residents of these Third World countries. High school students, university undergraduates and pre-med students are all targets for companies and organizations such as Project Abroad who promote medical voluntourism, or as it has been recently dubbed, “medical voluntourism.”

Medical voluntourism - wikipedia

Image Source: Expat of the World

What remains unique in the cases of such organizations is that they oversimplify a sensitive topic. Healthcare is an industry that all of us will, one day or another, have to depend upon. It’s also a field that requires extensive training. Unlike volunteer programs promoting youth to teach languages or create homes abroad, medical volunteers need to be properly trained not just in general biology and the use of the variety of surgical and medical equipment they will inevitably encounter, but also in the bio-ethically acceptable practices for that specific country. In the majority of Third World countries, religion plays quite a role in their health care practices, and it’s important for each of these volunteers to have customized training.

Therefore, when it comes to high school students and even university undergraduates, sometimes their educational background is simply insufficient to train them for what is to come in foreign countries. After all, helping midwives care for hardly day-old newborns is a rare job that requires extensive knowledge spanning from measuring heart rate to the brain anatomy of the child.

Take the influx of medical volunteers in post-earthquake Haiti, for example. Many volunteers, some as young as high schoolers looking to gain “real world experience,” entered the country without verified clinical or ethical capability, and some physically unable to work in a harsh environment where heat, humidity and limited resources are rampant. Under such conditions, humanitarian voluntourism had its unintended harms amongst not only the Haitian population but the volunteers as well.

A student involved in delivering a baby overseas without proper supervision explained the ethical complications of medical voluntourism in the research documentary First, Do No Harm:

“…I’m unskilled but when the baby comes out, I can cut and tie the umbilical cord and deliver the placenta. So although I’m not the most skilled person in Canada – I’d never be allowed to do that – but here, when the choice is between me and no one, there are different standards because there have to be different standards. I’m not saying it’s right, but it’s better than nothing…” 

Many NGOs promoting medical voluntourism amongst youth have tried to tackle these problems by introducing longer and more intensive training sessions before the volunteers can enter the country they will be providing services to. Other organizations have suggested more supervision for the volunteers, along with higher fees to participate in such programs to account for the resources the volunteers will extract in a country already so low in resources.

These policies, however, are far from being strictly enforced across all NGOs and companies. Until ethically acceptable and scientifically safe international medical volunteer programs become the norm, “medical voluntourism” is a term here to stay.


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