• Grace Hu

Overdosing on Medical Voluntourism

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In recent years, the phenomenon of medical voluntourism has spread to many high schools and universities in North America. There has been much controversy over voluntourism in general, yet medical voluntourism has often been excluded from the discussion due to how providing healthcare to those in need is perceived as an objectively generous deed. However, there are in fact many ethical and medical issues surrounding the subject that aren't as obvious at first glance.

Medical voluntourism refers to the process where students or medical professionals travel to developing countries to provide healthcare aid to local communities (Kascak and Dasgupta). Aspiring medical students often find themselves paying fees to embark on such trips, where they're tasked with performing medical operations without proper training or certification. While the ultimate goal of volunteer tourism is to provide essential services to underprivileged communities that may not be able to afford such resources, certain ethical issues concerning the volunteers' own motivations, and their impact on community capacity building, have come into question.

For-profit organizations such as GapMedics and Projects Abroad now offer immersive clinical programs in lower-income countries such as the Dominican Republic and Croatia (Flowdy). Such organizations are ultimately businesses, which seek to convey a "constant perceived need for outside help" to place volunteers in countries regardless of the local healthcare systems (Bauer). As such, agencies place emphasis on marketing voluntourism packages to as many unqualified volunteers as possible, rather than actually providing resources to build concrete healthcare infrastructure and eliminate the need for overseas volunteers in the first place (Bauer). Patients in local areas which receive volunteer aid are reported to be "less likely to purchase health insurance" (Foecke), since free foreign aid is available. Yet the irregularity of foreign aid, along with the inconsistencies in its quality, pose significant risks to local populations in case of disease outbreaks in between volunteer trips. The themes of neo-colonialism and exploitation in medical voluntourism can create dependencies on foreign aid, and ensure that locals "remain firmly at an assumed level of helplessness to secure more volunteer placements" (Bauer).

There have also been concerns of medical voluntourism prioritizing the fulfilment of volunteers themselves over communities' needs, essentially creating a fictional "Western saviour narrative" (Kascak and Dasgupta). Over the last decade, medical schools have raised their applicant expectations, with 73% of medical schools recommending that students acquire relevant experience where they "observe and learn about clinical practices" (AAMC). However, the US Department of Justice warns that undergraduate students placed in international volunteer positions should limit their patient interaction to the same level as "in a volunteer position in the United States" (Evert, Todd and Zitek), discouraging invasive hands-on patient care. Despite these guidelines, advisors for international volunteer trips continue to report instances of students "assist[ing] in the vaginal delivery of babies", "performing more than 100 lumbar puncture procedures" and being permitted to "diagnose and write the prescription" for patients (Evert, Todd and Zitek).

This is not to say all forms of international volunteering trips have been potentially damaging to host communities; there are multiple ways of providing foreign aid and resources to developing countries in a constructive and respectful manner. However, there is evidence that short-term acts of medical voluntourism that involve vulnerable communities and uncertified students may in fact be harmful. The dubious ethics of for-profit voluntourism organizations, combined with the imbalance of power between Western organizations and developing communities, can leave a long-lasting negative impact on international communities which ultimately outweigh the benefits brought by volunteer visits.



AAMC. Clinical Experiences Survey Summary. Association of American Medical Colleges, 2016. Web. 1 Apr. 2018.

Bauer, Irmgard. "More Harm Than Good? The Questionable Ethics Of Medical Volunteering And International Student Placements." Tropical Diseases, Travel Medicine and Vaccines 3.1 (2017): Web.

Evert, Jessica, Tricia Todd, and Peggy Zitek. "Do You GASP? How Pre-Health Students Delivering Babies In Africa Is Quickly Becoming Consequentially Unacceptable." The Advisor (2015): Web. 1 Apr. 2018.

Flowdy, Rachel. "Medicine." Gap Medics US. N.p., 2018. Web. 1 Apr. 2018.

Foecke, Emily. "Medical Voluntourism Needs A Checkup." Huffington Post 2017. Web. 1 Apr. 2018.

Kascak, Lauren, and Sayantani Dasgupta. "#InstagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism Of Global Voluntourism." Pacific Standard 2014. Web. 1 Apr. 2018.

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