Medical volunteering in foreign countries is a way for volunteers to hone their medical skills and experience a new culture at the same time.

Many pre-med students, aspiring medical professionals and physicians, even those who have retired, volunteer to do medical work internationally. Typically volunteering in developing countries, they are thus able to provide medical care to people who have difficulties seeing a doctor.

Despite the many benefits it provides for both volunteers and their recipients, there are certain issues surrounding medical volunteering, some of which may even potentially cause more harm than good. Some of these challenges as well as legal issues are outlined below.

Challenges faced while volunteering in developing countries

1. Inadequate infrastructure

It is not uncommon to find that the healthcare infrastructure in developing countries is inadequate. As such, volunteers usually struggle to make do with the little resources and funding they are provided with, which can be as limited as a mere few dollars per person.

Shortage of healthcare personnel, medical facilities and drugs may lead to unwanted events. One such case occurred in New Delhi whereby two dengue-infected children were refused hospital admission due to lack of available beds, which eventually led to their deaths.

2. Corruption

The unfortunate truth about poverty is that it can drive some people to commit crimes in an act of desperation. Corruption and theft are not uncommon in countries where majority of the people are faced with poverty, including healthcare workers and government officials.

Some instances of these include hijacking of medicine or supplies which are meant for hospitalised patients. These are often done with the intention of selling these items to black markets at a profit, or for personal use.

More serious examples include pocketing funds intended for health services, receiving salary for tasks not completed, or even theft of donated supplies.

3. Unfamiliar diseases and medications

When medical volunteering in foreign countries, there will be instances whereby volunteers are required to handle unfamiliar medications. Especially in developing countries, volunteers may find that the amount, quality and types of medications available are very different from what they are used to.

This will require adjustments as they will have to make use of drugs that locals are more familiar with. There may also be cases where volunteers are exposed to rare diseases that cannot be treated in local facilities, but are unable to transfer the patient elsewhere for treatment.

4. Cultural problems

While gender equality is more or less no longer a problem in the modern society, with both men and women given equal weight in terms of respect and support, this may not be so in certain countries.

Iran has banned certain fields of study to both women and men on the grounds of it being inappropriate. An example would be a woman seeing a male doctor for female needs, and vice versa. Volunteers in countries such as these may face cultural issues, which may be an obstruction to their work.

Legal issues faced with volunteering in foreign countries

1. Risk of error

Despite good intentions, medical volunteering may potentially cause harm. Problems faced include language barriers, unfamiliarity with the local population, medicines and the country’s common health problems, as well as the lack of time for proper and thorough treatment.

These volunteer trips are usually short-term, resulting in limited time with patients. In fact, volunteers have an increased risk of error due to inadequate health records, medical facilities and referrals for further treatment.

2. Risk of liability

According to a survey conducted by the Centre for Medical Missions in 2008, only a minority of medical missionaries have liability coverage. One in five reported to have been sued while doing medical volunteering, with settlements typically in the range of thousands of dollars.

As laws regarding medical malpractice are not yet fully established in developing countries, patients do not have easy access to justice. Thus, affected parties usually opt to settle disputes informally.

3. Over-regulation

While it is recommended to have regulations, over-regulation has resulted in some groups cancelling their medical missions. The Philippine Professional Regulatory Commission requires foreign medical professionals to have temporary permits in order to conduct humanitarian missions within the Philippines.

Every individual is also required to purchase liability insurance, have on hand specific documentation and pay administrative fees. On top of these, the volunteers and organisations will need to assume full responsibility for the outcome of their missions. They should also be held accountable for financial costs or follow-ups post-trip. MIMS

Read more:
Healthcare professionals: 5 volunteering opportunities in the Asia-Pacific region
The benefits of being a volunteer nurse: How it can positively influence your life and career
In conversation: Dr Tan T’zu Jen on taking medical volunteering to the next level


Note: Article first published on 24 April 2017.