The Skeptic’s Guide to Medical Missions

Tony Bartelme
Oct 28, 2017 · 3 min read

9 Tips to Help Make Your Short-Term Medical Mission More Meaningful

Flying over the Tanzanian bush to a missionary hospital. Photo/Tony Bartelme

Every year, health care workers go on more than 6,000 short-term medical missions, some that focus on treatment, others on teaching, and some that mix the two. Here are some tips I learned while hanging out with brain surgeons in Africa.

1. “It changed my life forever.” Studies on short-term missions show that this typically doesn’t happen. Post-mission, people usually keep the same behaviors and belief systems. Sometimes missions actually reinforce pre-existing conceptions! What a waste. Keep in mind that it takes time and reinforcement to change neural pathways.

2. So think long term. Take a moment to think about the lessons you learned during your mission and how you might reinforce them on a consistent basis afterward. So if you want to increase your sense of gratitude, identify ways to express this on a regular basis in the months after your return. The after-mission might be more important in the long run!

3. “They’re so happy.” Beware of snap judgments. To truly know people well, you have to spend extended periods of time with them. Think of how long it took for you to really understand your significant other! The people you meet may be smiling, but it may simply be that they’re being polite. They might be completely miserable. People everywhere are good at hiding their pain.

4. Be mindful of comparisons. Hey, this is a natural thing to do when you’re traveling. (“This white mush is just like the grits we make at home.”) We learn by taking new experiences and then incorporating them into our existing thought patterns and beliefs. It’s the mind’s desire to find familiarity in the unfamiliar — like looking for dragons in the clouds. So just be mindful when you make the comparisons. Recognize that you’re trying to make sense of things based on what you know. Do that, and you’ll be less likely to reinforce pre-existing conceptions and more likely to experience things as they really are.

5. Junk is junk. Don’t bring crummy medical supplies. Volunteer sites are packed with throwaway medical supplies. This junk is creating a serious garbage problem in many parts of the world. So if you’re bringing stuff, make sure it’s not broken or expired. Junk is junk no matter where you go.

6. Saving the world? C’mon. Mother Theresa once said, “If you can’t save 100 people, save one.” I love that intention, but with respect to Mother Theresa, many short-term medical missions help relatively few people. If poorly designed, they can actually harm the growth of local health care systems. So go on a mission with eyes open and lowered expectations about the good you can really do.

7. Be Self-full. I like this better than “selfish.” Medical missions are often as much about the volunteer as those they’re trying to help. And that’s OK! Use your skills in a different setting. Use the trip to inspire your education, your work at home. Thinking this way makes things more balanced. It takes a bit of the do-gooder hero complex away. You’ll also be much more tolerable to your hosts. Medical mission sites are full of stories about volunteers who boss locals around in the name of saving the world. (See №6.)

8. Get away from your volunteer peers. Going to a foreign land can be intimidating! But if you eat, sleep and hang out with your fellow volunteers, you’re missing out. Take time to get away from your friend groups and meet the locals. Embrace the unfamiliar.

9. Teach. If possible, find medical missions where you leave skills behind. If you’re still a medical student and not yet skilled yourself, no problem. Think of the mission as an introduction, one that in later chapters will make you a more effective teacher.

For a deeper look at the studies behind these tips and how this all plays out, please consider reading my new book, A Surgeon in the Village: An American Doctor Teaches Brain Surgery in Africa.

Safari Njema!

Doctor teaching at a missionary hospital in Tanzania. Photo: Tony Barteome

Written by

Projects reporter for The Post and Courier, author of A Surgeon in the Village (Beacon Press)

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