The Trouble with Medical “Voluntourism”

The Trouble with Medical "Voluntourism"

As a member of the faculty in global health studies at Northwestern University, I’ve studied medical volunteering in Tanzania since 2011, including over 1,600 hours observing volunteer-patient interactions across six health facilities. I have spoken with more than 200 foreign volunteers in Tanzania, plus conducted formal interviews with 48 foreign volunteers and 90 hosting health professionals.

This research shows that some help does indeed cause harm. In fact, the international volunteer placement industry opens the door to potentially disastrous outcomes.

Empirical data about the medical voluntourism industry is sparse. The most-cited figure estimates up to 10 million volunteers travel abroad annually, spending approximately $4 billion. Volunteers are predominantly young women; the number engaged in international medical volunteering is unknown.

Organizations providing medical voluntourism options may be either for-profit or non-profit.

Popular destinations tend to be both lower-income countries and tourist destinations: Tanzania, Ghana, Cambodia, India, Nepal, the Philippines, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and others. Many organizations’ websites prioritize prospective volunteers’ interests rather than the interests of those they purportedly serve.

On the International Volunteer HQ website, for example prospective volunteers learn that placements are available regardless of experience level. Candidates can be nursing or medical students, professionals, even students aspiring to become health professionals. More than 70,000 volunteers 18 or older can click on a country for costs ranging from $325 for one week to $2,015 for 12 weeks.

Projects Abroad offers medical volunteering placements for anyone over age 16, even if they lack prior medical experience and don’t speak the language. It touts itself as a “Doctors without Borders Alternative.”

This is an extract from an article originally published on Scientific American. Read the full article here.


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