Establishing Sustained Medical Missions

Patrick DeHeer DPM FACFAS

I want to strongly encourage any of you who are thinking about going on a medical mission trip or would like to go on another one to do so. I would like to offer a little guidance based on my own personal experiences.

The most effective medical mission trips are those that lead to an ongoing program that continues after you return home. A good example would be going to a developing country and helping to establish a diabetic foot clinic or a program like the Haitian clubfoot program (discussed in the last blog, “Medical Mission Trip: Facilitating Clubfoot Care In Haiti” This is something that serves the masses instead of a just a few people and is independent of one single person. This type of program has a life and becomes part of the countries’ health care system. Establishing this type of sustained program requires the development of relationships with physicians and government officials, which usually requires multiple trips.

In addition to multiple trips, a significant amount of planning goes into to starting new program as well. You should begin by writing down your vision and show it to those who will be involved to get feedback. Utilize their feedback and always ask them how the program could be better or what they would change about it. It is important that a program like this be led by the local doctors of the country you will be visiting with you acting in a supportive role. This is not the time for your ego to get in the way.

Educational and teaching type of medical missions in which you lecture and teach others directly is an excellent alternative to establishing a sustained program. At least with this type of a trip you are leaving knowledge behind that will continue to serve others in much greater numbers than you could alone. This is another reason why multiple trips and relationship building are important. With this type of approach, one should not only with practicing physicians but try to include residents and students in the educational process as well. This will ensure the knowledge you are sharing will be passed on to others and continue to spread.

My least favorite type of medical mission trip is the “parachute” type. This occurs when a physician visits a country and treats several patients alone without any local physician participation. This only helps a few people and has no sustained life after the physician leaves.

Additionally, often the follow-up care for any procedures the visiting physician does is marginal at best because none of the local doctors have the experience or knowledge to manage these cases postoperatively. The trap with parachute medical mission trips is they boost your ego and are personally rewarding. You have helped a defined number of people. This feels great and you can see the difference you are making. I know I have fallen into this trap on some my earlier trips and it is intoxicating.

However, we need to see the bigger picture. Indeed, it may take a few of these types of trips to discover the limitations associated with the “parachute” type of medical mission. The important concept is to remember that your continued efforts will help make an impact on a country that will greatly benefit from your dedication and service.

I would like to encourage anyone interested in medical mission trips to take the leap and go on a trip to see if it is something that is right for you. Additionally, do not forget about local service opportunities. I try to volunteer equally between local free medical clinics and traveling to other countries.

Finally, I would like to leave you with some words by one of my heroes Albert Schweitzer. When speaking at a college graduation, Schweitzer said: “You ask me to give you a motto. Here it is: service. Let this word accompany each of you throughout your life. May it be recalled to your minds if ever you are tempted to forget it or set it aside. It will not always be a comfortable companion but it will always be a faithful one … Never have this word on your lips but keep it in your hearts, and may it teach you not only to do good, but to do it simply and humbly. So many drift into the misery of indifference because they did not start out with the vital power of that comes from helping others.”

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