Why Healthcare Students Should Participate in Medical Volunteer Programs


A healthcare career is more than a job, it’s a calling. And for all the attractions that students may find in their health studies, from the promise of a good income to the allure of significant job security, it is, perhaps, the idea of “helping people” that brings so many promising students to the study of medicine.

Nevertheless, healthcare students may only have an abstract idea of what “helping people” really means in the context of healthcare. This is where medical volunteer programs can help, providing students with a taste of the reality of being a healthcare provider, equipping them with experience in the global health arena, and preparing them to serve their patients with skill, care, and compassion, whenever and wherever the need may arise.

A Global Perspective

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently estimated that, by the year 2030, the labour shortage in healthcare will leave more than 18 million positions unfilled worldwide. It’s further estimated that the vast majority of those unfilled positions will occur in developing countries, where the need for quality healthcare is the greatest.

This means that today’s healthcare students will likely be tomorrow’s global health leaders, tasked with meeting an urgent need, often in some of the most far-flung corners of the world.

This is, to be sure, important and essential work. If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that, when it comes to global health, we are all truly a part of one community, each of us a member of this vastly interconnected human family.

Healthcare students who decide to enrol in medical volunteer programs will likely find themselves serving abroad, caring for patients in some of the world’s most impoverished and least served populations.

And that opportunity can be invaluable for aspiring practitioners who may have had little or no experience outside of their home communities and the large and sophisticated, if not always perfect, Canadian healthcare system.

Volunteering for medical programs abroad provides an extraordinary opportunity for students to experience first-hand what it means to endeavour to provide care when resources are scarce, sometimes woefully so. And in the process, students gain a practical understanding of our global public health system, including not only the interdependence, fragility, and shortcomings of the system, but also its power, necessity, and immense potential to do good.

Volunteering with medical programs serving abroad is, in other words, the ideal and perhaps the only real way to understand both the local and the global realities of healthcare and how they intersect and interact. And this means that armed with such knowledge, students who have volunteered in foreign programs will prove an invaluable asset to future employers.

Students who take their first steps in the healthcare profession by serving abroad may well be setting themselves on the path to a medical career that will make a profound difference not just to their community but to the whole world.

After all, who better to define global health policies than someone who has seen the need with their own eyes. Who better to understand the needs of a globally interconnected public health system than those who cut their professional teeth on the frontlines of the fight for global health equity and justice?

The World at Your Doorstep

But medical volunteering does not have to involve wide-ranging travel to the remotest corners of the globe. Students do not need to leave the continent to serve. Even within some of the world’s wealthiest and most advanced nations, profound disparities in access to consistent and high-quality healthcare.

In the United States, for example, health equity continues to be a persistent and pernicious problem. Despite having one of the largest, richest, and most sophisticated healthcare systems in human history, significant swaths of the US population remain excluded and underserved, which leads to a disparity in the safety of both patients and employees. Healthcare tech, however, is helping to mitigate these gaps.

Medical volunteer programs, though, often take students and healthcare tech into marginalized communities throughout the world. Working within communities of need that often can be found just beyond the students’ doorstep, whether that means stepping just beyond the national border and mere meters outside one’s own neighbourhood, introduces young volunteers to new cultures, new worlds, new experiences, and new perspectives.

And with that knowledge comes heightened sensitivity, greater cross-cultural awareness, and an increased capacity to couple caregiving with compassion, aid with understanding. Such are the essential aptitudes of the caregiver, whoever and wherever they may be and whomever and wherever they may serve.

The Takeaway

Healthcare students are being prepared to enter fields characterized both by great need and tremendous opportunity. They are embarking on a career path that is likely to lead both to financial prosperity and job security. But students who volunteer to participate in medical programs, both at home and abroad, will add something far more, and far greater, to their preparation. They will gain first-hand, real-world knowledge of the global health system and its impacts on local communities. They will experience the realities, the challenges, and the burdens of caregiving in underserved communities near and far And they will gain essential practical experience that will prove invaluable to employers, healthcare systems, patients, and families worldwide.

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