Make a Healthy Difference by Volunteering Abroad

Crew members of the USNS Comfort treat a patient in Acajutla, El Salvador. (DoD Photo/Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric C. Tretter)
DoD Photo/Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric C. Tretter

Have you ever considered lending a helping hand abroad? As a healthcare professional, you can make a dramatic difference in the lives of people all over the world by volunteering with an international health organization.

Whether you choose to join a two-week surgical mission or a two-year health education campaign, your experience is likely to be memorable. Here's a rundown of a few of the many organizations that provide international volunteer opportunities for healthcare professionals.

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Doctors Without Borders

Doctors Without Borders provides medical relief to victims of disaster, hardship and war throughout the world. Medical volunteers for the organization, which is internationally called Medecins Sans Frontieres, work all over the globe in sometimes dangerous conditions. The organization generally recruits experienced medical personnel with at least two years of professional experience. Volunteers, who must sign up for a minimum of six months, include physicians, general surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, nutritionists, epidemiologists, midwives and other health professionals.

Health Volunteers Overseas

Medical volunteers with Health Volunteers Overseas (HVO) work as teachers rather than primary healthcare providers in the countries they visit. HVO volunteers train and educate local healthcare providers in specialty areas, including anesthesia, dentistry, internal medicine, oral and maxillofacial surgery, orthopedics, pediatrics and physical therapy. Most HVO programs require volunteers to serve for one month, but there are some sites where volunteers may serve for two weeks. Spouses and families can accompany volunteers on their assignments. Family members without clinical training can work as teachers, administrators or in a variety of other capacities.

Interplast

Interplast provides free reconstructive surgery for children in developing countries. The organization sponsors 35 surgical trips each year, sending teams of medical volunteers to countries such as Bangladesh, Ecuador, Nepal and Vietnam. Nearly 3,000 children are treated each year by medical teams made up of plastic surgeons, anesthesiologists, pediatricians, pediatric urologists, operating room nurses, recovery room nurses and nurse educators. The medical teams typically spend two weeks at each site, providing surgeries for an average of 100 children.

Peace Corps

Thousands of Peace Corps health volunteers scatter around the globe each year to begin two-year stints raising awareness about the need for health education. From setting up training sessions on nutrition and sanitation to promoting prenatal care and vaccinations, Peace Corps health volunteers play the role of community catalysts on health issues. Peace Corps health volunteers come from a variety of educational backgrounds, although they usually have a bachelor's degree and an interest in health. People with more extensive healthcare backgrounds -- such as graduates of master's in public health programs and physician assistants -- may be called upon to spearhead large-scale public health initiatives.

More Resources

For extensive lists of organizations with overseas opportunities for health professionals and students, check InterAction, a coalition of US private and voluntary organizations dedicated to international humanitarian issues, and Brown University's International Health Institute. Idealist.org lists thousands more volunteering opportunities, many dealing with healthcare issues overseas.

Closer to Home: The American Red Cross

You don't have to go overseas to make a difference as a health volunteer. The American Red Cross, the largest humanitarian organization in the US, depends on volunteers to provide relief to victims of disaster and to help people respond to emergencies. The Red Cross trains people of all ages and backgrounds for volunteer positions. Volunteers with nursing and mental health backgrounds are particularly vital to Red Cross operations.

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