Physician group issues guidelines outlining 'ethical obligations' for overseas medical volunteers

Male doctor in white lab coat
Doctors volunteer in overseas countries to help people, but their good intentions can sometimes have unintended consequences. (Getty/Saklakova)

Many doctors go into medicine because of their desire to help people. And many physicians and medical school students volunteer to spend time overseas, motivated by a desire to improve healthcare for underserved people.

But sometimes those good intentions have unintended consequences, which is why the American College of Physicians has put out a position paper with guidelines for doctors on their “ethical obligations” when they volunteer to work in what are called "short-term experiences in global health," or STEGH.

“Physicians who participate in STEGHs have ethical duties and special obligations to advocate for sustainable, mutual benefit; a fair and equitable distribution of resources; and partnership with and respect for the individuals and communities they serve,” according to the position paper published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

The guidelines, for instance, emphasize the need for cultural sensitivity, forming local partnerships, avoiding burdens on host organizations and communities, and respecting cultural differences.

The guidelines are intended to make sure overseas volunteers don’t end up doing harm rather than good, but critics have raised a major concern—no one from developing countries was part of the committee that formulated the guidelines, according to NPR.

In fact, the shortcoming was noted in an editorial that accompanied the position paper. "We were perplexed and disappointed that no authors from low- and middle-income countries were included and no input from in-country collaborators was acknowledged,” the editorial authors noted.

In retrospective, the group should have included that voice, Jack Ende, president of the ACP, told NPR.

Doctors who volunteer in humanitarian causes can reconnect with the fundamental purpose of medicine—helping patients— and can find it is a way to curb the cynicism and burnout that affect so many, Robert Pearl, M.D., author and Stanford University professor, noted in a column he wrote about global relief efforts.

And doctors don’t have to travel far to volunteer their time. Many also get satisfaction helping at clinics in the U.S. providing services for uninsured patients.

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