Humanitarian Medicine Basics

  • This page is intended to consolidate a wide range of information regarding inroads to global health projects and career paths. I will continually update it as I learn omre about different programs and as the options change. I appreciate any information you may have about programs that I have neglected to include; please send info to Thanks!

There are as many ways to do humanitarian medicine as there are people doing it. Each doctor, practitioner, nurse, and family member is going to have a unique plan and experience. However, here are a few big categories that encompass all of the scenarios. (Speaking from the vantage point of a doctor in the US or similar high-income country).

  1. Long-term overseas
  2. Short-term overseas
  3. Domestic volunteering

Additionally, you might be deciding NOW to pursue a career path that will allow you to do any or all of the above in the short or long term. So your plan could look like this:

First, domestic volunteering now. Next, short-term overseas within a year and on annual basis throughout career in the U.S. Finally, long-term overseas in 15 years.

Alternatively, I could do a couple of short-term trips first, while aggressively planning to pursue an overseas assignment within 3 years.

OR, I could opt to start my career overseas immediately out of residency.

Let’s look at two big groups that I hear from quite commonly. First, med students who want to do humanitarian medicine for a career. Second, experienced physicians with busy practices who really want to get involved in medical missions projects, but don’t even know where to start.

Long-term Humanitarian Medicine Options

Your main obstacle is funding. If you are an evangelical Christian, there are organizations that will fund your career and project, such as Samaritan’s Purse, through which our podcast guests Dr. Will Copeland and Dr. Sean Dupont worked immediately out of residency for 2 years. After this initial period, you will find a different sponsor for long-term funding.

Another option is to pursue an academic global health position, which are rare but are becoming more common. 1-2 year Fellowship programs are becoming increasingly popular, and could put you on track for this type of career. Of course, no one is better known in the world of global health than Paul Farmer, MD, who was arguably pioneered the academic global health track.  The best known global surgery fellowship is the Paul Farmer Global Surgery Research Fellowship through the Program in Global Surgery and Social Change (PGSSC) through Harvard. My best example of a surgeon who has succeeded in the academic path is probably John Meara, MD.

It is feasible that if you’re at a big academic institution, they might want to create a path for residents to spend a rotation or two overseas with you, and might fund you as joint faculty. Rutgers Global Health Institute¬†has a pretty impressive program, as does Duke.

Short Term Options

This is undoubtedly the most popular form of involvement in humanitarian medicine projects. Typically, you will volunteer to serve in your capacity as a physician or provider in a LMIC for a week or two. Volunteers usually spend some of their own vacation and fund their own travel and also give a tax-deductible donation to the organization with which they are traveling. I participated in this type of trip through HELPS international, a fantastic organization that has a multi-pronged approach to improving the health of communities in Nicaragua.

The barriers to entry for this option are setting aside the time and finding a responsible organization. It may sound like quite a sacrifice to give 1/3 of your vacation time per year to working in tough environments overseas when you feel like you just need a break. However, story after story, and even research studies, illustrate that volunteering in humanitarian projects is burn-out repellent and can give you a major morale boost. There is true joy in serving. Don’t take it from me…check out the work of “The Happiest Man Alive,” Matthew Ricard. I have met many medical providers who go back to the same project year after year, and they all say it renews their spirit.

You want to be sure there is follow-up for your patients after you go back home, an infrastructure to deal with complications (particularly if you are part of a group that is performing procedures), and working with local physicians to make sure your intervention is capacity-building and sustainable in nature. You don’t want to drop in, do a bunch of free surgeries for people who would have otherwise paid the local surgeons, and leave them to deal with your aftermath; this is unfortunately a common scenario that has given short-term medical missions a bad rep.

For suggested humanitarian health organizations for short term projects (These are organization that I know personally or are recommended by personal contacts. I will be continually expanding this list), follow the link to our Recommended Online Resources page.

Please check out our resources page for more reading material, and also let me know of other awesome altruistic organizations that I can add to our list.

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