Volunteering is a complex process, especially when medicine is involved. When volunteers from developed countries travel to countries like Ghana or South Africa to help in medical clinics, they are often faced with diseases and problems they are not familiar with. Because of this, there are often troubles with making a correct diagnosis or properly treating ailments.
Several medical students from Mexico recently travelled to different parts of Africa to help work in medical clinics, including Giorgio who worked on our Medical Volunteer Programme in Senya. They noticed several inefficiencies with volunteers as well as with medical care in general throughout different parts of Africa. The biggest issue seemed to be, as mentioned earlier, that volunteers were not properly prepared for the type of problems they would be facing. Many prominent ailments or diseases in Africa are uncommon or even nonexistent in the Western world. If medical volunteers were not even aware that something existed, how can they properly diagnose and treat it? One of the volunteers, Rodolfo, had this exact issue occur while he was volunteering in Zambia; he encountered a certain type of ulcer that did not exist in North America, let alone Mexico, and was unsure of what it was or how to treat it. Additionally, they noticed a lack of support and supervision coming from volunteer organisers, meaning volunteers had no way of knowing if they were making mistakes when facing unknown ailments or how to correct them.
They also noticed the importance of working with local traditions and customs in regards to medicine. The doctors, nurses, and general population of the town know the issues that are facing the community more than volunteers who have just recently arrived. They are aware of the most common problems in the area and who is most affected by them. Moreover, they have been treating people in the town with certain methods for a long time. An attempt to completely overhaul the system and introduce Western medical practices would not be feasible to implement in these countries. They recognised the importance of respecting different cultural practices and ensuring the work being done aligns with those, and saw that was not always being done by volunteers. They also picked up on issues that are commonly echoed throughout volunteer medical clinics in Africa, such as a lack of accessibility to healthcare for people living in poor, rural areas and the need for education about preventative measures rather than only trying to treat illness reactively.
Instead of just telling large volunteer organisers about the problems that they noticed, they decided to take matters into their own hands and create their own programme called Medical Impact. The goal of Medical Impact is to properly train and supervise medical volunteers throughout their volunteer experience and work directly with local communities and expert medical professionals to provide proper medical care. The creators of the programme wanted to ensure they were targeting the correct problems in each area and not spending time teaching volunteers to treat diseases that are not present in a specific location. This will help volunteers be prepared for what they will face in the clinic, help them make better diagnoses, and ensure they are properly treating patients. They also want to increase the amount of outreach visits done, travelling out into more rural areas of the country and offering medical care to those that either cannot afford the transportation to the clinic or can’t afford the clinic treatment at all. Additionally, Medical Impact wants to raise awareness throughout communities about preventative measures that can be taken towards different diseases.
Once fully developed, the programme itself will consist of several parts. The Medical Impact team intends to have the programme held on the field, so it occurs simultaneously with volunteers’ experiences abroad. As previously mentioned, 15 courses will be held covering major problems faced by the country the volunteers are located in. They will teach them what diseases and ailments are prevalent in the country, how they are spread, how to properly diagnose them, and how to treat them and implement prevention techniques. Once the volunteers get into the clinic and begin working with patients, members of the Medical Impact team will supervise them to ensure they are properly diagnosing and treating patients, and assisting them if need be. Medical Impact members are also in the midst of publishing in a book regarding tropical diseases, which will be given to each volunteer taking the course. A huge part of this programme being a success relies on choosing the right volunteers. There are volunteers with little to no medical education or experience volunteering in clinics in Africa, or volunteers who are not fully committed to the experience. By selecting volunteers who are either medical students or medical professionals, they can ensure that they are working with people that are not only qualified, but committed to the project and ensuring its success.
Several steps have been taken to start development of the programme. The volunteers conducted research and recorded data about the different places they visited which they used to find the issues and select what was beneficial and what could be improved. The team is also working with local and international NGOs to gain support for their initiatives. Medical Impact has already begun designing posters about preventative care for Kenya; they have created two different designs, one aimed at the general public and one aimed at healthcare professionals. Going along with the previously mentioned policy of keeping in line with cultural practices, Medical Impact sent the prototypes out to members of the NGO they are working with to gain approval for the design before printing them. They asked for any changes that may be helpful in making the posters more understandable to community members and doctors, and if there was anything else that would improve general acceptance of the posters. If community members approve of designs or projects, it is much more likely that they will be effective. Once these projects are implemented, they plan to continue recording data to track the effectiveness of their work and use that information to shape their future endeavors.
As advocates of ethical, responsible volunteering, we love to see steps being taken towards ensuring medical volunteering is done correctly and by properly qualified individuals. While this programme would be incredibly beneficial both to volunteers and to the people volunteers are directly working with, it will take a bit of effort to put into place. And as with any other project, it takes a some money to get the ball rolling. Arms Around the Child and Volunteer Invest are huge supporters of Medical Impact and the goals it strives to reach, so we would like to share the link to their fundraising page here. Please consider contributing and supporting the amazing work they intend they do.
If you would like to volunteer on the Medical Programme, please get in touch to find out more here