I took my first short-term medical mission trip the summer after my junior year of high school. Our team of twenty American teenagers embarked on the 24-hour flight to Uganda bearing one brain surgeon, two nurses, and suitcases full of stickers and children’s books.
Working alongside Ugandan doctors and nurses, I couldn’t help but wonder why our English presentation of poorly-Googled health information warranted the $3,000 trip across the world when a Ugandan medical professional could have easily done the same thing in greater depth and without a translator.
With the growth of “voluntourism,” increasingly obscene amounts of money are devoted to short-term medical missions trips every year. It’s easy to see the appeal: these trips give volunteers an impressive new line on their resumes, the opportunity to experience an exotic culture, and the unshakeable knowledge that they are doing their part to make the world a better place. But with an average expense of $50,000 per mission adding up to a whopping $250 million going to short term medical missions each year, it’s important to ask ourselves the question—are these trips actually worth it?
I think that the answer to that question in most cases is a resounding no. Because of the short-term nature of these trips, the immense amount of money spent on them would be much better spent developing long-term healthcare solutions in resource-poor communities.
Short Term Medical Mission Trips are Volunteer-Focused
Short-term medical missions trips are focused on the desires and needs of volunteers, not the communities they seek to serve.
The director of a non-profit health clinic in rural Guatemala told a shocking story of a short term medical missions team who came to volunteer for her organization. The team told her that it was comprised of mostly doctors with a few medical students, and that it wanted to put on a general health clinic in a rural village. When the team began the clinic, the Guatemalan nurse who was guiding them called the director of the organization in panic and said that the clinic did not meet her standards of care. When the director drove out to the site, she discovered the team to be comprised of mostly high school students with only two doctors, and watched a teenage boy fill a prescription for antibiotics with Advil.
Unfortunately, people are often unwilling to support causes unless they get something out of it. Because of this, long-term organizations are dependent on donations from short-term volunteers in order to get the funding they need to continue working. These organizations are forced to allow underqualified teams who don’t add much value to the organization’s mission to come volunteer in order to eventually solicit donations from them.
Short-Term Medical Mission Trips Create Dependency
Because short-term medical missions trips usually only use foreign medical equipment, drugs, and labor, they create a dependency on foreign healthcare that only exacerbates the problem of reduced access to healthcare locally. A Guatemalan woman, Michelle Perez, wrote about her experiences with short term medical missions trips to her country. She told of having friends who intentionally didn’t buy health insurance because they knew that a short term medical mission trip would come every few months and provide them with free healthcare.
The provision of free foreign drugs and labor hurts the local healthcare system by decreasing demand and discouraging development in healthcare in the long-term. This dependency only compounds the issue of reduced access to medical care that missions teams are trying to combat.
Short Term Medical Mission Trips Waste Valuable Resources
Most of the money spent on short-term medical missions trips is used for plane tickets and lodging—travel expenses. As the majority of short-term medical missions trip are under two weeks long, the value of the services provided often don’t offset the exorbitant costs of travel.
One short-term missions trip spent $30,000 on each house built in Honduras, but it would have only cost $3,000 per house to hire local workers to do the same job. Volunteers’ need to feel like they are having an impact actually translates into being able to serve less people because the majority of funds are wasted on travel. The average cost, about $50,000, of a short-term medical missions trip, could easily pay the salary of a primary care provider who could work in the community of interest year-round and provide greater continuity of care.
The issues of healthcare inequality and injustice demand a response, but in most cases that response doesn’t involve teaching high-schoolers to use a stethoscope and shipping them across the globe. People often say that the real benefit of these trips is for the volunteers to gain perspective and eventually a long-term passion for serving the poor. If this is true, then I would ask that we stop labelling these trips something they aren’t and send people to learn, not to save.
I’d encourage people to leave their pretenses at home and spend some time learning from the real heroes of healthcare: those who will still be there long after the short-term team is gone.