As doctor or a medical student wondering about medical volunteering overseas, have you ever asked yourself: “How can I do that? How could I really find the time and money needed in order to help out somewhere in the world where the need is great?”
First of all, volunteering overseas is not for everyone. Some doctors cannot adapt well to the unfamiliar practices and mindset of other cultures. It is unnerving when tools and support are lacking, and where it may seem like life is worth so little. Yet doctors are generally a pretty smart bunch, able to deal with a wide variety of personalities and perspectives, and many will do just fine.
But first you have to get there, which brings us back to the original question; however, the question must be rephrased. You cannot “find” the time or the money, as if they are sitting discarded by the side of the road, waiting for you to pick them up. The question that should be asked is: “Where is your time and money going, that you have nothing left to give?” What habits do you need to develop to change this situation?
Almost all American doctors are in the top 5% group of wage earners. So you are targeted deliberately and desperately by credit companies, stores, medical supply gurus, but also by your medical friends, culture, and surroundings to spend, spend, spend. Unless you decide early on and repeatedly to combat this onslaught, you will find yourself like most doctors: moaning over your debts and with no time off even years into your career, all the while making 4 times the national median income.
The strategy is simple, it only needs to be implemented. Cut the club membership and go to 24-hour fitness. Buy the Kia instead of the BMW; they are both have 4 wheels to get you here and there. You don’t have to buy the cheapest thing all the time, but you certainly don’t need the most expensive either. Do you really need the most recent i-phone, i-watch, or laptop? A flat screen in every room? Do you need to shop at Tiffani’s every week? If you are serious about helping those in this world with nothing, then you need to live with a little less. Perhaps most importantly: where do you live? Does it have to be the gated, golf course, sea-side neighborhood with a pool, or can you have a normal but decent house instead?
As for time: you must guard it. Medical training takes nearly every second of your day, but you still have small bits here and there, albeit annoyingly unpredictable. Do not go golfing or skiing or out drinking every moment that you are off. Put some time into volunteering locally, going to church, or just taking a walk. Get used to saying no to non-priority duties. If you understand that the poor of this world need medical attention, you will be less drawn to more and more work and play here.
When you are interviewing, tell your prospective employer that you want to volunteer overseas. Most bosses are very sympathetic to this and will go out of their way to help you, but don’t take their sacrifice for granted. Let them know in advance if you are going to be out of town and need someone to cover for you. If you join a group, the same thing applies: tell everyone up front, during the interview, that you want to have some time off for volunteering regularly. Make it clear that you are looking for time in addition to the usual vacation. You can’t take all of your time meant for family and rest and expect to be working twice as hard overseas with no break. You may not need all the time off that some jobs may offer, but you need at least 2 weeks off per year that is actually vacation. Be ready to be paid a little less in exchange for volunteer time, and don’t expect everyone to appreciate you, though many will admire you if you stick with it.
Lastly, make connections that will help you get overseas. It is easier to walk this path with others who know the way. If you are a medical student, do not spend every elective month of your fourth year on an interview rotation; instead, find a program or position overseas for part of it. Many schools have international programs now, making it easy to get involved. You may not come back to something like this for many years due to residency requirements, but getting your feet wet early is very helpful.
If you have finished your training, find out who is doing what overseas and have coffee with them. Often these people are busy, so be persistent. See if you can tag along. Find out what your hospital or group is already doing, or what the churches in town are doing overseas. Contact one of the many groups that organize medical mission trips, choosing one that is reputable and allows newcomers. Your first trip does not need to be medical; but it needs to be service, not just vacation. Treat it like you are on a medical student rotation, even if you are a seasoned practitioner. If you go overseas like you know everything already, you are not going to be useful. There is more to say about how to prepare yourself culturally and otherwise, but that is another topic.
Every year, many doctors serve overseas and find it extremely rewarding. You can be one of them, if you develop the habits needed: protect your time, do not overspend your money, and make the right connections.