Traveling Health Volunteers Often Do Harm

(p. D3) Tens of thousands of religious and secular institutions now send hundreds of thousands of health volunteers from the United States out into the world, generating close to an estimated $1 billion worth of unpaid labor. Volunteers include experienced medical professionals and individuals who can provide only elbow grease; between these extremes of competence are the hordes of students in the health professions, among whom global volunteering has become immensely popular.
. . .
Students may take advantage of the circumstances to attempt tasks well beyond their expertise. Seasoned professionals may cling to standards of practice that are irrelevant or impossible to sustain in poor countries. Unskilled volunteers who do not speak the language may monopolize local personnel with their interpreting needs without providing much of value in return.
Problems may lie with the structure of a program rather than the personnel. Volunteer projects may be choppy and discontinuous, one set of volunteers not knowing what the previous group was up to, and not able to leave suggestions for the next group. Medications may run out. Surgery may be performed with insufficient provisions for postoperative care.
Even well-organized programs may undermine hosting communities in unanticipated ways: For instance, a good volunteer-based clinic may sap confidence in local medical care and, providing free services, threaten to put local physicians out of business.
. . .
A few studies on the long-term effects of short-term good works are ongoing. In the meantime, “there is little evidence that short-term volunteer trips produce the kinds of transformational changes that are often promised,” Dr. Lasker finds.

For the full review, see:
ABIGAIL ZUGER, M.D. “The Folly of the Well-Meaning Traveling Volunteer.” The New York Times (Tues., APRIL 26, 2016): D3.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date APRIL 25, 2016, and has the title “Books; Book Review: ‘Hoping to Help’ Questions Value of Volunteers.”)

The book under review, is:
Lasker, Judith N. Hoping to Help: The Promises and Pitfalls of Global Health Volunteering, The Culture and Politics of Health Care Work. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016.

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