International Medical Volunteer Work: Improving Awareness and Sustainability

Short-term international medical volunteer work can potentially improve access to care for underserved populations, and develop the skills and awar
eness of medical professionals. However, such work has been criticized as being self-serving, ineffective, and inappropriate, raising unmet expectations, and imposing burdens on local facilities. In response to many of these challenges, The San Lucas Mission, in San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala felt a need to better integrate visiting health volunteers into a sustainable healthcare system. The purpose of the study was to identify the challenges faced by the health volunteer program of the Mission, and to propose potential solutions. The study aimed to improve the cultural/situational awareness of health volunteers, and to better integrate them into the existing healthcare system. Methods included observation and informal interviews with volunteers, local health promoters and physicians, community members, and Parrish staff.

My work identified the following concerns in the healthcare program: (1) lack of awareness of health volunteers regarding the Parrish philosophy, the existing healthcare system, and Mayan culture; (2) lack of appropriate skills of health volunteers, especially in language and pharmaceutical distribution; (3) failure of medical volunteers to address root causes of health problems; (4) lack of communication between the different areas of the healthcare system; and (5) structural/organizational issues with the health promoter program.
  Based on these results, I recommended the creation of specific requirements for future medical volunteer groups regarding language, group size, physician:student ratio, medication organization, and work with health promoters. I also recommended division of groups between acute care and preventive care; further development of the health promoter program, and centralization of scheduling and communication within the healthcare system. Finally, I created an orientation document to improve the awareness and preparation of future volunteers. Future research should address the role of volunteers in prevention and the development of sustainable health promoter programs. The challenges faced by the San Lucas Mission are not unique, and this experience suggests the need for global guidelines for short term medical volunteer work

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