Health Care Volunteer Abroad

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A Guide to Healthcare Volunteering Abroad

International volunteer work provides the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others regardless of the type of work being done. However, healthcare volunteers may have the largest and most noticeable impact of all. The lack of access to quality healthcare across the world today is an enormous problem, especially in rural and economically disadvantaged communities. Through healthcare volunteering abroad, you can use your skills and knowledge, whether you are a new student or a fully licensed physician, to help bring healthcare to those who truly need it most.

Why Volunteer Abroad

Volunteer opportunities abroad in healthcare are both readily available and very much needed. In fact, international healthcare volunteers make up a sizable proportion of health care workers in many underdeveloped nations, as they rely on outside assistance to support the medical needs of their growing populations. Certain areas of Asia, Africa, and South America are in the greatest need of healthcare volunteers, since many rural areas have just a handful of local physicians available to manage populations in the thousands. In these regions, healthcare volunteers, whether students, nurses, or licensed physicians, help to fill the gaps that simply cannot be handled by local doctors, and also bring with them medical treatments and expertise not available otherwise. 

Furthermore, healthcare volunteering abroad is not only a great way to help others, but it can certainly benefit you as well. Volunteers will have a fantastic experience to add to their resume, making healthcare volunteer programs an excellent choice for students at any point in their medical education. The hands on experience gained through healthcare volunteer placements is exactly what many employers and/or academic institutions are looking for from applicants. Tack on the international aspect of volunteering abroad and you will be able to not only show that you can apply your healthcare knowledge, but also that you can do so in an unfamiliar, foreign, and challenging setting.

Locations

The majority of healthcare volunteer programs are located in areas of the world that lack well-established healthcare systems. Therefore, South America, Africa, and Asia are some of the most common regions of the world that welcome international healthcare volunteers year round. Since there are a large number of countries and communities very much in need of healthcare assistance and support, there are a wide range of possible destinations to volunteer abroad in healthcare; however, here are three of the top locations for healthcare volunteering abroad:

Malawi. This landlocked country in southeastern Africa is both very similar and very different from what many consider a “typical” African nation. Malawi is one of the most geographically beautiful areas in all of Africa, with the clear waters of Lake Malawi providing world-class diving and snorkeling opportunities. However, despite the natural wonders of the country, Malawi remains one of the least developed countries on Earth. Therefore, healthcare services are limited to say the least, and health issues, including HIV/AIDS, malnutrition, and malaria, continue to be widespread. Healthcare volunteers interested in disease control or epidemic management would be well suited to volunteer in Malawi.

Vietnam. While the level of development in Vietnam is well above that of many nations in Africa, the healthcare situation is still far below international standards. A lack of modern facilities and a shortage of trained doctors means that quality healthcare services are out of reach, both physically and financially, for many Vietnamese people. The few quality hospitals that do exist are naturally overcrowded and understaffed, leaving plenty of room for volunteers to assist local physicians in a range of tasks, which may include taking patient vitals, like blood pressure, heart rate, and temperature, as well as treating minor medical ailments, such as bandaging minor wounds. Healthcare volunteers should have some formal health education prior to arrival given the nature of most volunteer work in Vietnam.

Belize. Although it has the lowest population density in all of Central America, the health care system in Belize constantly struggles to accommodate citizens and provide affordable and adequate medical care. Public hospitals and clinics are underfunded and understaffed, while the medical care at private establishments, though better, is well outside the price range of most Belizeans. Malaria, respiratory, and intestinal issues are widespread, as is cardiorespiratory disease and other forms of non-communicable illness. Those interested in public health or learning more about healthcare systems in the developing world are a perfect fit for healthcare volunteering in Belize. One of the biggest advantages of volunteering in Belize is there is no language barrier for English speakers, as it happens to be the nation’s official language.

Healthcare Volunteering Abroad

Given the very broad but skilled nature of the healthcare industry, volunteers will likely only be asked to perform tasks consistent with their existing skill set and level of education. Volunteers with little or no formal education will likely assist with basic health care tasks, such as clerical work, while those with at least some education can move into tasks that involve direct patient contact, like taking vital signs and managing patient intake. In general, nursing, health science, and medical students, and especially licensed healthcare professionals, will be equipped for most types of healthcare volunteer abroad, but that is not to say there aren’t healthcare volunteer placements available for just about anyone willing to give their time somewhere in the world. 

Healthcare volunteer placements will vary widely based on location and the specific health issues facing the local population. Many of the communities in greatest need of healthcare volunteers are rural, as these tend to be the areas that have the least access to healthcare services. However, some volunteer organizations place volunteers in larger cities as well, depending on the type of medical facilities available and the type of healthcare support that is needed most. Healthcare volunteers should generally be prepared to live without reliable internet and running water, and possibly even deal with occasional periods of no electricity. Volunteers should also prepare to work with limited medical supplies, somewhat outdated technology, and basic facilities.

Healthcare volunteering can last anywhere from a couple weeks to several months; therefore, short breaks from school are not out of the question in many cases, and neither are several month-long stays. Whatever your schedule and budget allows for, most organizations will be willing and able to accommodate.

Benefits

Healthcare volunteer programs allow volunteers to make a direct impact on some of the most pressing medical issues in our world today. Not only will volunteers get to make a difference in the lives of others, but they will also be presented with a fascinating and priceless learning opportunity themselves. Seeing the impact of health issues up close will put their perspective far ahead of any peers who may be simply trying to learn about the field from a book.

Both the academic and professional benefits of healthcare volunteering abroad can be enormous, leading to a lifetime of opportunities to continue to make a difference in healthcare around the world. 

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A Guide To
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