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Go Abroad, Give Back: Medical Missions Aren't Just for MDs

by Anna Davies |January 3, 2019

When Emily Scott packs for a trip, the 33-year-old makes sure she has plenty of clothes, toiletries and surgical gauze.

Medical supplies in your carry-on? It could become more common than you might expect. Scott, a nurse from Seattle, WA, is one of a growing number of travelers who are seeking out volunteer experiences abroad. Sometimes referred to as "voluntourists," these travelers partner with organizations around the globe on projects ranging from helping to build houses in hurricane-ravaged communities in the Caribbean to pitching in at under-served medical clinics around the world.

Here's the why and how of medical volunteering from those — with and without professional medical backgrounds — who have done it.

No medical background required

While some medical volunteering programs insist that volunteers have a healthcare experience, others accept volunteers of all professional backgrounds. What's more, not all of these opportunities require far-flung travel.

Kelsey Swenson, 27, of Minneapolis, MN, says her grandmother, Georgann, promised her a trip to after her high school graduation. As graduation loomed, however, her grandmother presented a different offer: They could go to Europe, or she could bring Swenson to Camp Goodtimes, a camp for children with cancer located outside of Seattle, where Georgann had volunteered one week of her summer for the past 15 years.

"I chose the camp," says Swenson, who now spends two weeks of each summer volunteering at the organization using her vacation time. Swenson had no medical experience when she first started helping out, but Camp Goodtimes partially inspired Swenson to become a nurse as well.

"I always have people say, 'Wouldn't you want to go to a resort or something?' But I truly wouldn't. Yes, I'd sleep more. The food would be better. I'd have a chance to relax. But I always come home and to my real job so much more fulfilled. There aren't a lot of vacation opportunities where you're able to give to others while giving to yourself, too," Swenson says.

unidentifiable nurse in blue scrubs with crossed arms and a stethoscope

How to find places to volunteer

Want to give back? Seasoned volunteers share their tips on finding the right experience for you.

1. Get your feet wet

Before you embark on a two-week volunteer journey, Scott says, research a "social impact trip" — essentially tours that incorporate some low-impact volunteer opportunities. "These can help you find out if you like living with a host family, being more engaged in the day-to-day of a community and help you experience a country for the first time without the pressure to perform a job," says Scott. Searching "social impact travel" online can surface organizations that specialize in these sorts of trips.

2. Look for an experienced outfitter

There's a lot of value in assisting an established organization — not least of all because they will have the capabilities in place to protect your health and safety, says Sun. Once you've found an organization that seems in line with what you want to do, ask for a few referrals from past volunteers. They'll be able to provide you a more detailed sense of the daily schedule, the ups and downs of the trip, and more.

3. Make sure your own logistics are covered

Prior to any volunteer travel opportunity, it's essential to ensure you're protected — get necessary travel insurance, vaccinations or paperwork prior to going abroad. Some organizations can assist you through this process, but volunteers say it's important to also do your own due diligence and be realistic about the risks you may face. It's also helpful to consider other potential barriers: If you don't speak a local language, for example, ask whether interpreters will be on hand to aid you in communication.

4. Don't discount local opportunities

While a trip abroad may be the dream, it can sometimes be hard for schedules and logistics to line up. In that case, Sun advises, consider local opportunities to make a difference. These sorts of opportunities can be equally as valuable and are often times more accessible.

Medical volunteer organizations to consider

Ready to pack that surgical gauze in your carry-on bag? These groups offer a jumping-off point for medical volunteer opportunities abroad. Many organizations have roles available for those with and without a medical background. While programs vary, those who don't have a medical background may be tasked with administrative work, general patient support, assisting medical professionals in organizing and delivering supplies, providing emotional support to patients, and helping create and staff clinics in the field.


This sustainable travel organization has medical placement and volunteer opportunities around the world from one week to several months long. This organization offers placements for both medical practitioners and those who are not in the field.

United Planet

This organization offers worldwide placement, in varying time frames, for all medical professionals, including nutritionists, social workers and physical and speech therapists. This organization focuses exclusively on those in the medical and medical-adjacent fields.

Goodtimes Project

This non-profit supports camps, events and local events for pediatric cancer patients and their families in Washington and Alaska. Medical and non-medical volunteer positions are available for the summer camp program.

Anna Davies

spent five summers volunteering at an oncology camp, where her 12-year-old campers were impressed by her take-no-prisoners skills in winning the whipped cream war on Carnival Day.

The content reflects the view of the author of the article and does not necessarily reflect the views of Citi or its employees, and we do not guarantee the accuracy or completeness of the information presented in the article.