Advice for Volunteering in a Medical Disaster Response

November 17, 2015

Volunteering to help in an international crisis is laudable. But make sure to conduct your due diligence first.

*Editor's note: This blog was solicited and written before the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. The timing perfectly underscores the continued need for qualified healthcare providers to step in and give of their skills and time in these tragic circumstances.

This past October an earthquake hit Pakistan and Afghanistan killing over 300 people and injuring 2,700. It is another humanitarian crisis in a world of too-frequent disasters -earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, tornadoes, avalanches, and floods.

Have you ever thought, "I want to help?" Many of us became medical providers out of a need to serve. It is not uncommon to hear that inner voice calling you to do something when disaster strikes. Personally I have heeded that call on two occasions where I felt connected to the people and countries that were involved.

By 2004, I had been involved for seven years with clinical rotations of visiting medical teams from Thailand, as a both a physician assistant and a professor at the University of Utah PA program. So when the tsunami devastated Thailand killing approximately 200,000 people, I had to do something. I was already connected through Global Partners which brokers medical resources between the United States and foreign countries, including Thailand, and was able to work through them to get connected to the chief military pathologist. I stayed three weeks working in a makeshift morgue where we identified and processed 4,500 bodies. It was difficult - not what I expected to be doing - but you realize very quickly that you can't have preconceived notions - you have to do what they need you to do.

Then again earlier this year I took a group of PA students on a trip to Nepal for a medical and cultural exchange. I left the night before a major earthquake destroyed much of the country and killed over 3,000 people, including a certified PA working on Mount Everest. I knew I had to go back to help the Nepalese people. This time I worked through Project Hope, where again I had a connection. They were quickly able to process my paperwork.

Because we had a clinical rotation in Nepal we had affiliations and Memos of Understanding documented so we could go right to work. Some relief teams came who couldn't do anything - they didn't have clearances - and that is just an exercise in frustration.

How to get involved

Disasters bring out a compelling desire to help in many people and that is appropriate and laudable. However there is a right way and time to get involved.

• Connect with a known organization now. Going over rogue can be liability, because you are another person to be fed, housed, and transported to different parts of the country and that can be problematic.

• Get your paperwork in order. Relief organizations have the infrastructure to integrate you into their plan, but they need your credentials, shot records, health status, etc., to put you on their roster. These agencies are aligned with the foreign governments and this is essential to being productive. In Nepal, for example, every amputation had to be approved by the Ministry of Health and Populations, World Health Organization, and the U.N. You need to work within the system.

• Look in your own backyard. You don't have to go abroad. There are state organizations that need volunteers too. A Katrina-type disaster could happen almost anywhere and your talents can be utilized close to home.

• If you want to do international relief, a good resource to start is the International Medical Volunteers Association.

Will the agency need you?

Every situation is different.

• Do you have the talentsthey are looking for in this particular situation? They may need trauma surgeons, mental health professionals, or rehab professionals to deal with "crush" injuries and amputations. They may need primary-care physicians to deal with disease outbreaks or non-life-threatening injuries.

• Are you willing to do anythingthat is needed? Flexibility and compassion are as important as your medical skills in these situations.

• Humility is essential, especially if you are used to being in charge. In a foreign country you will probably be directed by government officials, foreign medical providers, or agency staffers.

Are you cut out for working in these environments?

If any of the following apply, you may be a candidate to make a world of difference.

• Traveled internationally to resource-poor countries

• Military experience with overseas deployment

• Volunteer experience where the rewards are not monetary

• Working with diverse groups, cultures, and religions

• Foreign language skills

I can personally attest that the rewards are immeasurable, especially if you have an affinity for a particular country or culture. The next disaster is always just around the corner. If you have found yourself thinking about volunteering in the past, take the next step now.

Don Pedersen, PhD, PA-C,is Emeritus Professor at the University of Utah Physician Assistant Program, where he was chief of the Division of Physician Assistant Studies. He has authored over 75 articles and book chapters relating to clinical practice and physician assistant education.

*This blog was provided in partnership with the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants, which administers rigorous certification and recertification exams to PAs throughout their career.