Voluntourims: The Negatives

This week our class is volunteering at Share A Meal Food Truck. Most of our class are pre-meds and are probably no stranger to volunteering. Most medical programs encourage its applicants to volunteer. In my opinion, I think that many students interested in medicine volunteer not only because it looks good on an application but because they are interested in doing something good, which is common motivator for aspiring physicians. Although I am sure the volunteering we are doing today will do some good, is volunteering always a good thing? A popular type of volunteering among pre-meds and adventurous good doers is “voluntourism” and some are starting to argue that this particular type of volunteering does more harm than good.

First, what is “voluntourism”? Voluntourism has been described as “travel philanthropy” or “ethical vacations”. In other words, voluntourism is the opportunity to roll a vacation away and volunteering into one great experience. Voluntourist contribute to local community projects and development initiatives while also doing typical tourist-y things such as experiencing local culture and taking in the sights. There are many different types voluntourism. A few examples would be: removing invasive plants, planting trees, building schools, saving wildlife, cleaning up natural disasters, and providing medical aid.

For now, let’s just focus on medical aid voluntourism. Try to put yourself in the shoes of a pre-med or medical student. Imagine how much you want to work in the field, to start saving lives and to actually practice medicine instead of just studying it. Voluntourism gives eager students like this the opportunity they have been waiting for. Most countries where voluntourism takes place, usually undeveloped ones, do not have a strict code for medical practice unlike here in the states. They take what they can get because they do not have enough doctors available to help every patient. This allows pre-med and medical students to do operations that are far beyond their skill level which is potentially dangerous. I have heard stories about people delivering babies and removing teeth, which is great for a resume and increases experience in the field but really this could be quite harmful to a community. These unexperienced students are essentially practicing on people, which is wrong for obvious reasons.

There is a great documentary about medical voluntourism in Africa called “First, Do No Harm”. This documentary highlights potential problem that arise from voluntourism such as what I mentioned before. Moreover, the documentary highlights that these under experienced students are trusted more than the actual health professionals. People come into their local hospital with some medical ailment and they see a white American and assume they know more than the local doctor who actually has a license. Many local doctors and hospital owners are fed up with pre-med and medical students that swoop in from other countries, get more respect from their community than they do, and take away resources that can be used to teach their own medical students that are not planning to fly away in the foreseeable future.

As a student interested in health/medicine I know more about medical aid voluntourism, specifically the type that students not professionals do, but there are pros and cons to all types of voluntourism. If you interested in voluntourism here is an article discussing the possible benefits and drawbacks.