Like countless other health professions students and medical personnel, I have at prior time taken a trip down to Latin America to help provide medical care to a patient population with under-served health needs.
As spring turns into summer, and more medical personnel make their pilgrimage to provide service, it gives me opportunity to reflect on the system this all takes place within.
My first issue is with mission trips whose primary goal is something other than providing health care. This specifically refers to religious mission trips. Now, I have no problem with religion, unless taken to the extreme, it is a great help to a great number of people. However, I believe the right to be healthy belongs to all people regardless of religion. I fundamentally disagree with using medicine as a way to sell ones beliefs or to convert a culture to your belief system. Simply put, medical care should be provided because health is a basic human right. It should not be used as a tool, or a hook, for some other purpose.
However, thinking back on my own experience, provides an even more general outlook on the whole system.
When i went on my mission trip, yes, we provided a good deal of medications. We diagnosed and treated some infections, some diarrhea, and yes, even some infectious diarrhea.
When I returned home, I could not help but think: “What happens the next time these patients get an infection? Or diarrhea?” What happens if the business of importing volunteers drys up?
The communities I visited were completely dependent on international volunteers for health care. The local health care system was anemic. If that stream of volunteers was interrupted, the area’s health would suffer.
Yes, these trips are a tremendous way to train students as, for better or for worse, many times they are free from many of the regulations, burdens, and expectations of healthcare in the developed world.
But … have we really improved these people’s health care in any meaningful, lasting way?
What I suggest is we change the lens through which we view the goal of medical mission trips. Let us model them more-so like the peace corps. Instead of setting goals to measure it by as teaching experience and treating “X” number of illnesses. Let us judge the effects by how much of a lasting impact was made in the communities that we visit.
Why not clean up the water supply so that less people get diarrhea and infections to begin with?
Why not teach local health workers how to diagnose and treat common ailments?
Why not help create clinic spaces and create a medical infrastructure from which to build on?
Why not create a medication distribution system that can get people medicines that they need and train people within each community to educate people on the use of these common medications?
I think if we start to view some of these activities from a more global perspective, we can see how some of the activities we support as a developed country, may not be what those who are still struggling to develop really, truly need.
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