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Subspecialties Health Economics and Policy, COVID-19, Professional Development

Protecting Nonprofits

International medical volunteering was at a record high – when the global travel and healthcare delivery industries were significantly impacted by COVID-19. Since then, communities around the world have relied predominantly on local healthcare resources, with support from telehealth and online programs. Unfortunately, many resource-constrained areas were already facing issues with patients’ access to care and shortages in healthcare professionals. Now, due to the temporary suspension of non-urgent healthcare services and supply chains, the backlog has only grown.

Addressing such backlogs through volunteer missions could seem like a simple solution. But, with the added challenge of keeping doctors and patients alike safe from COVID-19, it is vital that organizations running medical volunteer opportunities do not rush back to deliver, but instead offer a well-thought-out plan for safe, sustainable, and impactful programs that respect and support local needs. Global eyecare NGO Orbis International has implemented hands-on ophthalmic training programs with the support of high-quality volunteers for nearly four decades. We have grown our cadre of volunteers to over 400 medical experts from over 30 countries, deployed to nearly 100 countries, with the help of these three strategies:

  1. Build a baseline credentialing process within your organization

Although qualifications are routinely regulated where doctors practice on a regular basis, the ability to participate as a medical volunteer – specifically in low- and-middle-income countries – is often less thoroughly understood and enforced. Vetting volunteers and developing a high-quality, diverse, and well-trained pool provides a solid base from which to match program needs with volunteer skill sets.

Initially, volunteer organizations should credential volunteers in-house, including a background check, professional record verification, and review of references and letters of recommendation. These references are critical to ensuring the applicant not only has the necessary technical and clinical capabilities, but also the communication and cultural skills to maximize relationships with partners and local communities. Depending on the program type, requiring a minimum length of training or employment time is also important.

     2.   Align with local country needs, customs, and regulations

Although a volunteer’s desire to help is valuable, without aligning with local partners on what support is most needed, poor outcomes and limited sustainability are likely. Organizations should implement hands-on training and clinical care through partnerships with local hospitals and engage with partner staff on multiple levels to ensure that programs can be tailored specifically to local training needs and interests. Requirements vary per location and have increased in recent years, but in-country licensure is another key element for successful volunteer programs – from both a legal and an ethical standpoint. Collaborate with local partners to secure in-country licensure for the volunteers selected for each program location, in addition to initial internal vetting and clinical privileges.

   3.   Hold your organization to a higher standard

Organizations must demand more of themselves. Using qualified volunteers to deliver medical care has always been important; its value is highlighted even more with health systems globally under significant stress. As countries cautiously reopen to visitors, organizations must ensure that they do not cause a greater disservice through the delivery of poor care or training. Volunteer efforts need to be impactful – there is no time or room for waste or “good enough.” Taking an “it’s better than they have now” approach is detrimental to both patients and volunteers.

In this sense, renewing and refreshing credentials is just as important for volunteers as for staff medics. Organizations need to commit to the ongoing process of updating credentials and meeting the changing requirements of host countries and their Ministries of Health. Additional internal controls – including incident reporting and follow-up discussions through a clinical oversight committee – further promote continuous improvement.

Dedication to consistent, high-quality programming is critical as we prepare to come out of the pandemic – and that can only be achieved with appropriately skilled volunteers. This pause provides an opportunity to reevaluate how medical volunteer programs are organized and implemented, ensuring they safely meet the needs of both volunteers and local communities. Furthermore, volunteers themselves should use this pause to evaluate what type of organization they want to travel with – and, more importantly, how they want their time and skills to make a meaningful and lasting impact in the future.

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About the Authors
Noelle Whitestone

Project Consultant for Orbis International. She led the successful launch of the third generation Flying Eye Hospital – an MD-10 aircraft.

Hunter Cherwek

Vice President of Clinical Services for Orbis International. He oversees the organization’s flagship Flying Eye Hospital and the Cybersight telemedicine initiative.

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