Voluntourism – call it a spade and use it carefully

Dr Patrick in action as a newly qualified physician working in an obstetric unit in rural South Africa

Dr Kirsten Patrick is Deputy Editor at CMAJ

Last week I was fortunate enough to be invited to a great workshop, organized by the CMA’s Public Health division, aimed at developing a unified policy and advocacy platform for humanitarian medicine. As the background reading material pointed out, many Canadian physicians are interested in participating in humanitarian medicine initiatives and work or volunteer abroad at different stages of their life and career. The problem is that many such activities are ad hoc, not optimally planned, fragmented, and undertaken without due consideration of their impact. The CMA hopes to co-ordinate efforts in Canada to explore and delineate best practices, and to optimize the way that global health activities are coordinated among NGOs, physicians, residents and medical students.

I’ve had some experience with developing guidelines for best practice during short term experiences in global health. In 2010 I was part of a group led by Jeremy Sugarman, professor of bioethics and medicine at Johns Hopkins, and John Crump, a professor at Duke’s Global Health Institute, that produced the first Open Access guidelines on Ethics and best practice guidelines for training experiences in global health. The first decade of the new century saw an explosion of global health programs that would send students and graduates for short term experiences, usually from a developed country to a less developed country (without much traffic in the other direction). To quote Sugarman, we now have a “stunning  prevalence  of  initiatives covering  a  broad range  of  activities,  institutions,  and  countries”, offered by “Governmental, Non-­‐governmental, Religious, Humanitarian relief, Academic and Professional [organizations].”

In the early 1990s, as a medical student in Johannesburg, South Africa, I spent some clinical rotations in Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto. There I met many foreign medical students (mainly German and British) who came to get 'developing world experience' (mostly of performing surgery that they would not get to perform at home). If they were keen and hung around long enough sooner or later they’d get to do an appendectomy, or a circumcision, or excise a lipoma the size of a baseball. Ethically sound behavior? Mmmm. Not so much.

But it isn't just students. Trained physicians from wealthy countries also go to less well developed areas to offer their skills. Historically the pattern was for physicians to pack up their lives and go to live and work in an under-served area for many years. Yet in the last few decades the ease with which air travel and temporary accommodation can be arranged has changed this pattern. Now the opportunity exists for physicians to keep their ‘developed world lives’ relatively intact while taking a short trip to ‘do good’ somewhere else.

Do they do good? That's the million dollar question. While they may be motivated by good intentions there is no clear evidence that such activities are beneficial in an enduring way to the host countries. An oft-quoted paper points out that there IS benefit for physician who goes abroad for the brief stint, both for that physician personally and for his/her home country (because such people are more likely to work in under-served areas back home in their future careers). Trainers from leading humanitarian organizations acknowledge that one thing we DO know for sure is that there is always some harm that comes from even the most well-intentioned of humanitarian missions (see list of resources below).

Some of the ethical considerations and potential negative consequences of short term global health experiences were outlined in an influential 2008 JAMA article. The cynical term ‘voluntourism’ is perhaps a realistic descriptor of such activities, given their clear benefit for the traveler and much less clear benefit for the receiving community.

I think there is a particular difficulty for many who are fired up by the noble desire to ‘do good’ or ‘make a difference’ to stop and think about potential negative consequences of their well-intentioned behavior. Because how could giving up one’s time for the good of others be bad? Yet it is probably ‘placebo’ at best as some have argued “don’t go”. But realistically, without some Icelandic volcanic ash scenario in which all airplanes out of North America and Europe are grounded, physicians will continue to go abroad on global health ‘missions’. The only thing that we can do is increase awareness of ethical concerns, encourage physicians and students to think about scenarios ahead of time and endeavor to educate, educate, educate…. in the hope that the harm done by people going on global health experiences and humanitarian missions can be minimized.

The CMA meeting’s participants were top notch, representing all the main stakeholders leading the way in humanitarian activities and global health electives in Canada and some international players, perhaps with the notable exception of experts from countries who receive medical humanitarian missions and voluntourists. The CMA will produce an official report at the end of the process. In the mean time here are some educational and support tools that may be helpful to those who are thinking of going abroad to ‘do good’ in a medical way.

  • The Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics collaborated with the Stanford Center for Innovation in Global Health to produce an excellent case based online course on Ethical Challenges in Short-Term Global Health Training. [This course is based on the guidelines on Ethics and best practice guidelines for training experiences in global health I mentioned earlier; it is widely understood that case studies are the best tools to teach applied ethics…best for pre-departure training, but also useful as an in-field resource and to assist debrief after return.]
  • HumEthNet, a website that developed out of empirical research on the ethical dilemmas faced by humanitarian healthcare professionals working in humanitarian crises, disasters or areas of extreme poverty.
  • The McGill Humanitarian Studies initiative, which offers the Canadian Disaster and Humanitarian Response Training Programs that range from an introductory course to an advanced program that includes simulation training.
  • The 53rd week, a non-profit organization that aims to maximize the benefits derived from short-term volunteer initiatives using innovation, education, and research.

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