Should You Volunteer in a Disaster? Advice for Physicians

Ingrid G. Hein


June 04, 2015

In This Article

Disaster Response Organizations

Hundreds, if not thousands, of organizations provide disaster response, relief, and aid abroad. What follows is a very short list of groups that are looking for physicians to work in medical relief. For a more comprehensive list, check the JAMA Career Center: Volunteer Opportunities or the American Medical Association's list, International Organizations.

Medical Reserve Corps

In the United States, physician volunteers can sign up with the Medical Reserve Corps, a national network of local volunteers who participate in public health initiatives, emergency response, and programs to help build resilience in local communities.

If you are in medical school, take advantage of international residency programs (too numerous to list here). These offer a good introduction to working abroad and in third-world environments, and will help you learn what experiences best suit you.


MSF was started in 1971 by two doctors who had been volunteering with the Red Cross. They saw a need to band together with other doctors, especially in establishing a knowledge base of war surgery, triage medicine, and education.

Today the organization has programs in about 70 countries. Their motto is, "Go where the patients are." Although that seems like an obvious mission, conflict situations around the world can make that a difficult task—thus, the name "Doctors Without Borders." MSF "volunteers" actually receive $1731 per month and are provided with everything they need while on a mission, including medical insurance and holidays.

See the MSF website to start the application process, which takes 3-4 months. Applicants must be willing to work anywhere they are needed, and go where assigned. Doctors are assigned to disaster zones only after completing a first mission.

Speaking French is a big plus, but is not mandatory; however, many of the organization's missions are in French-speaking countries. At the time of this writing, an American recruiter said that he had 15 doctors ready to go on their first mission, but only one spoke French. She would be first to get an assignment.


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