Short term volunteering abroad
Authors: Elen Vink, Rhiannon Lloyd-Hughes
Publication date: 25 Oct 2012
You don’t have to commit months to volunteer your medical skills in a developing country, write Elen Vink and Rhiannon Lloyd-Hughes
“Akulahlwa imbeleko ngokufelwa: never despair in adversity”—Zulu proverb
Does the challenge of working in a resource poor setting and providing healthcare to some of the world’s poorest people appeal to you? Have you ever wanted to volunteer your medical skills abroad but just not had the time? Is the financial commitment of a long term voluntary post unfeasible? If the answer to any of these is yes, then maybe a short term volunteer placement is for you.
We are two junior doctors who wanted to volunteer our medical skills in a developing country. With specialty training looming, however, the most time we could offer was three weeks. This ruled out working for organisations such as Voluntary Service Overseas or Médecins Sans Frontières, which require a commitment of at least six months to give volunteers time to adapt to and understand the community they are working in and to ensure the continuity of projects. Such lengthy time commitments may preclude doctors in full time employment from volunteering. We set ourselves the task of identifying a meaningful way to volunteer our medical skills on a short term basis.
Finding a short term post
Finding an appropriate volunteering opportunity was not easy. It was important to us that the project we became involved in would be sustainable, that we would be of use, and that our skills would be appropriately used; these considerations were made particularly pertinent because of our time constraints. We sought recommendations from our lecturers and colleagues and researched numerous organisations on the internet. Finally, we came across the charity TWOWEEKS (www.twoweeks.org.uk), which specialises in short term volunteer placements and can accommodate medical volunteers.
The charity was founded by two doctors after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. These doctors had wanted to help in the wake of the disaster but were repeatedly refused as they could not commit to a long term placement. They later found colleagues and friends with a similar desire to volunteer for short periods, and so their charity was formed.
TWOWEEKS assigned us to a clinic in rural South Africa and provided intensive training before our departure. The preparatory sessions allowed us to consider what could be achieved in a short timeframe and to set realistic goals. The training process gave us the opportunity to get feedback from previous volunteers. We were continuing projects similar to theirs, and reports on their trips gave us useful clinical and logistical information. In addition, we found guidance from the local doctor extremely valuable in developing objectives that would deal with the specific needs of the clinic and the local community .
Working in South Africa
We worked in a clinic that served a population of 40 000 in eThekwini, in rural KwaZulu-Natal. This region is one of the poorest in South Africa, with a life expectancy of just 49 years, an HIV prevalence of 41%, and an average of only 12 doctors per 100 000 population. Working in this environment we often felt outside our comfort zone, and on several occasions we were left in charge of the clinic (“the bosses,” as our nursing sister liked to call us), which was a daunting prospect. However, we felt a great sense of achievement when we were able to find innovative solutions to problems, a feeling we have rarely experienced in the more protected working environment at home.
We encountered a wide range of medical conditions, such as congenital complete heart block, spinal tuberculosis, and schistosomiasis. Being exposed to such a range of pathology and clinical signs meant that our clinical knowledge and diagnostic skills improved rapidly. Limitations in resources forced us to take a rational and patient centred approach to investigation and treatment, which may become an increasingly important skill working in the NHS in the current economic climate.
As well as reviewing patients in the clinic, we took part in several other activities, such as community health checks on children aged under 5 years, organising the pharmacy, and teaching the clinic staff. We were also given the task of mapping the resources in the area. Initially, we were apprehensive about becoming involved in activities such as this one that were not our area of expertise. However, being open to these tasks allowed us to gain useful experience in areas such as healthcare management and public health, widening our knowledge to allow a more holistic approach to medicine.
Experience and enthusiasm gained
We saw at first hand the importance of “never despairing in adversity” and left South Africa with our passion for medicine invigorated. We would recommend such short term volunteering opportunities to anyone who is interested in learning about a different healthcare system and broadening their experience while providing medical assistance where it is desperately needed.
Competing interests: None declared.
- Statistics South Africa. Statistical release P0302: mid-year population estimates 2009. www.statssa.gov.za/publications/P0302/P03022009.pdf.
- National Department of Health, Republic of South Africa. The national antenatal sentinel HIV and syphilis prevalence survey in South Africa, 2010. www.doh.gov.za/docs/reports/2011/hiv_aids_survey.pdf.
- Health KwaZulu-Natal. Strategic plan 2010-2014. www.kznhealth.gov.za/stratplan2010-14.pdf.
Elen Vink core medical trainee year 1
Western General Hospital, Edinburgh, UK
Rhiannon Lloyd-Hughes GP specialty trainee year 1 Long Fox Unit, Weston-super-Mare, UK
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