Should You Volunteer in a Disaster? Advice for Physicians

Ingrid G. Hein


June 04, 2015

In This Article

This is good for your soul. It's good for your fellow human beings. And nothing is comparable to saving another life.

— Peter N. Bretan, Jr, MD, California urologist and transplant surgeon; member of Team Orleans during the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005; and founder of LifePlant International, a medical relief group providing education and aid to the Philippines

Answering the Call

As the earthquake shook Nepal last month, it also sent a tremor to the core of the North American doctor's altruistic bones. When you have the skills to save lives and there is such an incredible need, it's hard to stand by and watch.

Most nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are busy with existing teams when new volunteers call in the heat of a crisis. It's easy for a doctor to become frustrated and disappointed. Instincts take over. Why not just go solo and lend a hand?

"Want to throw some penicillin in a backpack and head into the sunset? Think again," says Eileen D. Barrett, MD, governor of the New Mexico chapter of the American College of Physicians and internal chair of the volunteerism committee. Specializing in internal medicine, Dr Barrett has practiced in Thailand; Burma; and most recently, Sierra Leone.

She says that no matter how well intended, medical experts who show up in disaster areas are almost always more of a burden than a help. Physicians need more than first-class medical skills to be of use in a crisis zone.

Dr Barrett has always traveled abroad with an organization, to ensure that she can focus on using her medical skills, with training and a support system to back her up. To care for Ebola patients in West Africa, she attended a training session in Boston, then another given by the World Health Organization in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Especially for that type of work, "it is only safe to work with established NGOs or governmental organizations," emphasizes Dr Barrett. "Untrained or unaffiliated doctors who arrive spontaneously are usually more of a hindrance than a help because nobody knows who they are, or what they are capable of. They end up needing care themselves, taking valuable trained aid workers away from their work."

Being impulsive about volunteering abroad doesn't help anyone. Dr Barrett compares it with choosing a school, a city, or a specialty. "It's important to first really know who you are and what you want, then do some research to figure out what organization might suit the experience you are looking for."

Start with some simple questions, she suggests, such as:

  • How much discomfort can you live with?

  • Will you be okay taking bucket baths for 2 months?

  • If there is no electricity, will you be okay not reaching your family?

  • Will you be able to keep your religion to yourself in a community with a different religion?

  • Can you work with other people's tools?

  • Can you sleep on a very thin mattress for weeks at a time?

Next, it's about being honest about your skills as a doctor. If your specialty is radiology, you don't want to risk being placed with women who are having babies or with children who have malaria. "These people are excited to finally see a doctor...if you can't deliver, everyone ends up disappointed," said Dr Barrett.

Think seriously about who you are, what you have to offer, and what type of experience you are looking for. Are you looking for an adventure? A vacation? Or are you just medically curious? Do you just want to observe or be of service—ready to pick up a broom? "There is no reason to feel bad if you want to be a tourist, but don't pretend otherwise, even to yourself," she recommends.


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