Ensure Your Global Health Service Helps You, Too

March 12, 2018

Here are some tips for using global health work to fight burnout.

Many physicians find that short stints doing global health work is a great antidote to burnout. The logistics of such a trip can be tricky, though.
“Some employers will give you time off for humanitarian work, and some physicians use a week or two of vacation for service projects,” says Hughes Melton, MD, a family practice physician in Virginia, who is experienced in global health work. “Some organizations, especially academic medical centers, have a relationship with a particular nation or community, and there would be opportunities there,” he adds.

Physician organizations often have resources for members who are interested in global health. The Office of International Medicine of the American Medical Association offers volunteer opportunities both in the United States and abroad. [https://www.ama-assn.org/about-us/international-volunteer-opportunities] The American Academy of Family Physicians Center for Global Health Initiatives has a wealth of information on the topic. [https://www.aafp.org/patient-care/global-health.html] You might also check with a local university for opportunities.

There are plenty of things about service work-beyond selecting a project and finding time to take part-that you may not have thought of.  Here are a few tips and reminders about how to pull off a humanitarian project, and how to make sure you get the most out of it.

Prepare yourself. Do some homework about the people and places you’ll be visiting. Talk with other physicians who have worked in the area where you’ll be going. The situation on the ground in other countries can sometimes be disturbing and a bit overwhelming if you don’t know what to expect. “Prepare yourself for what you’re going to see,” advises Mary Jo Welker, MD, an Ohio family physician with many years' experience in global health.

Choose Wisely. “For your first trip, it’s probably a good idea to go somewhere that’s not too far away,” says Melton. “Maybe no more than a five or six-hour flight.” Foreign language skills aren’t necessary; there will be translators. But if you do speak a language in addition to English, it makes sense to choose a country where your language skills will be useful.

Stay Safe. “Make sure the people you are going with can guarantee your safety,” says Welker. The group should check with the State Department before you depart to make sure the situation at your destination is safe. “In 2015, we had a trip scheduled for Haiti that was cancelled at the last minute because of unrest in the country,” Welker recalls. Once you’re there, heed the cautions and recommendations of the group’s leaders. Don’t venture out on your own if it is not safe to do so.

Debrief. Arrange to have a day or two when you get home to rest and process the trip. “We usually get back on Saturdays,” Melton says. “That gives us a chance to rest and do laundry before we have to get back to work. You won’t need a vacation after, though. When you get back, you’ll be tired but energized.”

Spending a week or two helping the underserved abroad or at home can reawaken the passion for service that brought you to medicine in the first place. Burnout doesn’t stand a chance next to that.