Unintentional Harm

Fair warning message: I have been meaning to write this blog post, but I just have not been able to get to it, which is why you are seeing some of my recent posts about topics that were already mentioned.

Prior to reading all the blog posts and articles about medical voluntourism, such as “The Trouble with Medical Voluntourism” and “The White Tourist’s Burden,” I have always admired students that were willing to spend their summers going abroad to give their service and time to help a country that is in need of assistance, rather than spending it lounging around somewhere warm, like the beach. However after reading these articles and discussing the topic during class, I now realize how it is an issue. I believe most students are taking this English 101: Literature, Medicine & Racism class because they believe it will help them gain knowledge that they can use in the medical field. Discussing topic like medical voluntourism is important because it allows us to ask ourselves, “If we lacked the training and expertise required, would we risk harming a patient’s life in the chance of helping them?” No, right? If we would not do it here in our home country, what makes us think it is right to do it in a foreign country?

Volunteering is seen as an admirable way to spend your time by helping those in need. So why not combine traveling and helping? During several class discussions this semester, we have talked about the controversial topic of medical voluntourism, and whether the trip is more beneficial for the low-income communities or for the students engaging in voluntourism. A voluntourist is someone who wishes to travel to an exotic location while both volunteering and exploring. The problem with this is that people do more harm than good. To start off, voluntourists are usually undergraduate students, medical students or even students pursuing a position in the medical field that desire to help those in need. However, they violate their rights by performing medical procedures without the necessary training or experience.

These students believe that traveling abroad to these third-world countries could be a resume booster when applying for medical schools. According to Noelle Sullivan’s article, “The Trouble with Medical Voluntourism,” research shows that medical schools recommend or even require students applying to have clinical experience. Clinical experiences are not meant for you to learn the medical procedures but to teach you to how to interact with patients. When interacting with patients, you learn how to listen, understand, and sympathize the struggles and pain the patients are going through. Ultimately, it teaches you humanity. Therefore, when you finally become a part of the medical field, not only would you have the medical expertise but also the compassion necessary to be a doctor. This means that you are able to treat your patients with the utmost care they deserve. Unfortunately, students misinterpret this message and travels abroad in hopes of seeking opportunities they would not find in their home country or even be allowed to experience. If anything, medical schools sees this as a red flag, since it tells them that the applicant is willing to harm or risk an individual’s life, the patient’s, in the chance of gaining experience. For example, in Sullivan’s article, she mentions a student, Mary, who violates obstetrics best practices by performing episiotomies and pulling breech babies. Not only did she lack the license to practice, but also was willing to risk harming both mother and child’s life in the chance of helping.

I have always loved the phrase, “Help me, so I can help you,” because it is exactly what these programs need to take into consideration when traveling with a bunch of students. Rather than abusing their rights while volunteering abroad, a student should try to find ways to help the needs of the recipient community. As Sullivan mentioned in her article, we need peoples’ “good intentions to be redirected towards the people on the ground, already doing the meaningful work in the long term.” I believe the best way to achieve this is to have sessions prior to visiting abroad, to increase the lack of knowledge these students have on the location, the people, their culture, and their customs (Zakaria, 2014).

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