What remains once they’ve gone is as key as anything the volunteers bring
Short-term medical missions are unquestionably good for volunteers learning health care by treating troubled communities around the globe. But as returned Peace Corps volunteer Garrett Matlick reminds in “Short-Term Medical Missions: Toward an Ethical Approach” (American Journal of Nursing), what they bring with them effects those communities long after they’ve gone.
So, in addition to the supplies and the medicines they pack for the journey, he writes, volunteers must leave plenty of room for one extra heavy item: thoughtfulness. Measures undertaken on these mini-missions must be appropriate and sustainable and involve local leaders and systems from the get-go. Otherwise, good intentions and temporary fixes can leave a troubled community leery of future “help.” Matlick has witnessed both ends of the good/bad spectrum.
“In one successful model, Operation Smile, oral surgeons and other providers would come for a couple of months to perform cleft palate surgeries.” These are, of course, repairs that last a lifetime. However, “One group brought various antibiotics that were meant for short-term treatment, but there was no comprehensive plan for patients to follow once the mission ended. This can be problematic in cases of therapeutic failure or antibiotic resistance. Poorly designed missions like this one may inflate the moral rectitude and résumés of young health professionals at the expense of communities.”
He argues for fewer, smarter missions and “more long-term options with sustainable results.”