Finding time, and a cause
About two-thirds of physicians do some sort of volunteer work, according to a 2015 survey by the Journal of Compassionate Health Care. Pro-bono medical teaching was the top volunteer activity of doctors (54% said they did it), followed by providing free care at their practice (39%) and volunteer work at a clinic or outreach program (38%).
A 2016 Permanente Journal survey of physicians who volunteered at safety-net clinics in California confirmed that many viewed their work as an “escape hatch” of their regular jobs. The biggest challenge to volunteering? Finding the time to do it. “Time is a physician’s most precious commodity, and they don’t have enough of it,” says Gazelle.
So how can physicians who want to volunteer carve out time in their already packed schedule to do it? One answer seems obvious, says LeRoy: “Make it part of your schedule, so that nobody intrudes on it.”
Albani suggests starting small. “They will be happy to have you come out and help, even if it’s just for a few hours once a month or maybe once or twice a year,” he says. “I have clinic volunteers and physicians who may only be able to come out once every month or two.”
Physicians who already feel that they don’t have enough time for their families, their faith or their community should be strategic about their volunteering, says Vania Manipod, DO, a psychiatrist who specializes in treating burnt-out physicians and medical students in her practice in Ventura, California.
“I have seen physicians who feel like they aren’t getting time for their children or their religion,” she says. “My recommendation would be to volunteer at your kid’s school, go on a field trip with them or volunteer for religious activities to get reconnected with your spiritual place of worship.”
Manipod says physicians, even if they work in a group practice, can easily fall prey to feelings of isolation. “I barely ever get to see my co-workers, because we’re just running back and forth,” she says. Volunteering, however, restores “meaningful connections” with others, Manipod notes.
More often than not, physicians will know where they are needed most in the community, just by listening to their patients, says Karen L. Smith, MD, who has a solo primary care practice in rural Raeford, North Carolina.
In 1989, while getting her medical degree in Philadelphia, Smith was asked to give a talk to her church about the then-exploding AIDS epidemic. “The community was just scared to death,” she remembers. “I was called upon to try to allay the fears of the people in the congregation. So here I was, a semi-health professional who could really talk about the issue that was sensitive to the population and bring it under control so people were not fearful but were understanding.”
She realized the influence, and obligation, she had as not just a healer but an educator. She was hooked.