The physician's guide to medical volunteering

January 23, 2009

Volunteering can improve lives near and far - especially your own.

The next time you're due for a break from the office, you might strive to renew your love of medicine with a volunteer mission. Dozens of organizations, both domestically and internationally, need primary care physicians to treat the millions of people suffering from acute and chronic conditions as a result of poverty, natural disaster, armed conflict, and other factors limiting access to sufficient care.

Medical Economics spoke to physicians who volunteer with a number of these organizations, from those operating around the world to those just around the corner from your practice. Read on to learn about many of the top programs, which offer great relief to those in need-and perhaps to you as well.

DOCTORS WITHOUT BORDERS

http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org

WHAT: The best known of the medical mission organizations, Doctors Without Borders (or Médecins Sans Frontières, as it was originally known) was founded by doctors and journalists in France in 1971. MSF provides care in 60 countries to people suffering from illnesses and injuries because of armed conflict, epidemics, natural disasters, or lack of access. The organization won the Nobel Peace Price in 1999.

WHERE: MSF works all over the world, but concentrates on areas in the midst of crisis such as Sudan, Congo, Iraq, Niger, Pakistan, and Indonesia.

COMMITMENT: More like a career than a volunteer opportunity, MSF pays its field medical professionals a monthly stipend of $1,300, plus a per diem in local currency and benefits such as health, disability and life insurance, vaccinations, interest paid on student loans, and a 401(k) plan. A 9-to 12-month commitment is expected in exchange, which might be impossible for doctors running a busy practice. The organization requires at least two years of professional experience and less than a two-year gap in experience, so interested retirees need to act sooner than later. Physicians can accept or reject assignments, but cannot select where they want to serve.

RISK: Working in war-torn or devastated areas is not for the skittish. MSF field staff are typically stationed in a hospital or clinic, so there isn't much moving around, but evacuation can become necessary if the area becomes too dangerous. The field staff lives in designated MSF housing, which in most areas includes security guards. "I did worry about my safety," admits Marc Levin, MD, a family physician in New York City who worked as an emergency physician in a displaced persons camp in Chad, serving refugees fleeing the war-torn Darfur region. "There was no direct threat to me, but I knew violence was escalating in the area."

LEGAL CONCERNS: U.S. doctors must be licensed, but there is little concern of malpractice. As with all medical volunteer work, confirm that your insurance company will cover you or that the organization will provide coverage.

POTENTIAL COSTS: Almost none-MSF pays for housing, food, transportation (including airfare), clothing, medical supplies, equipment, and drugs.

PHYSICIAN-VOLUNTEER SAYS: "The organization does take care of us," says Levin, who took an unpaid leave of absence from his job as a faculty member in the Beth Israel Medical Center Family Practice Residency Program. "In many ways, it's like having a real job."