Global Health: Volunteering Abroad, should it go on my application?

Hey guys!

I am hoping to get feedback about whether I should put my global health experience on my med school application or not. I have what I feel is great global health experience, however I have been getting more and more concerning feedback on what that experience will look like on my med school application. Recently my adviser at school told me that the experience does not count as healthcare experience, it only counts as cultural experience. Additionally I have heard that some med schools are starting to reject applications with any global health experience at all to discourage students from doing short term medical “missions” that can be damaging to local communities. Lastly, I had posted something in the Premed Hangout Facebook group about my experience and how much I enjoyed being in the OR shadowing cataract surgeries. I posted a picture of myself with one of the ophthalmic nurses I had become friends with over the duration of my experience. I was really surprised with the amount of negative feedback I got from the Facebook group. People began privately messaging me and commenting that what I did was unethical, I didn’t deserve to get into medical school, and making comments that it looked really bad for a white woman to go to a third world country to participate in one of these programs that takes advantage of under-served and under-represented populations. I ended up deleting the post and leaving the Facebook group. It was really disheartening because I had put a lot of research into making sure I chose a program that really emphasized responsible global health practices that provide long term and follow up care to patients. I am now very concerned about the experience having a really negative impact on my application.

I have several years of experience working as an optometric technician and grew very passionate about eye care. One day at work a pharmaceutical rep told me about her experience volunteering abroad on an eye care trip and I thought it sounded like a great opportunity to give back to world for something I was passionate about. I began researching programs and learned about the differences between doing a program that focuses on providing sustainable global health and doing a short term eye care “mission” trip. After understanding that the short term trips, even if well intended, can actually have a really negative impact on the communities they are trying to help, I found a really great program called Unite For Sight.

Unite For Site partners with local native ophthalmologists in Ghana, India, and Honduras to provide them with funding to run outreach programs through their private clinics. With the funding from Unite For Site, these private clinics are able to hire a local outreach team. The outreach team has a designated region and each day they travel 1-4 hours to different outreach locations to provide eye screenings by local optometrists and ophthalmic nurses hired for the outreach program. They are then able to dispense reading glasses and medications for conditions like glaucoma etc. When a patient needs surgical treatment for something like cataracts or glaucoma, arrangements are then made to transport the patient to the main clinic for further testing or treatment. The patient usually stays near the clinic for a few days for follow up care and then the ophthalmologist will travel to designated areas to provide further follow up post-op care around the 3, 6. and 12 week mark. At the last post op once everything is healed, they are given a new glasses prescription.

The outreach team also partners with local community leaders in the towns they travel to in order to spread awareness of the program and gain good trust with the community in addition to training local community volunteers. What I really love about this program is that each outreach point is visited on a regular basis to provide long term and follow up care. Patients are able to be monitored and given medication refills to last until the next visit.

Where the volunteer work comes in is with assisting the outreach team with the eye screenings. As a volunteer you are required to go through a training program 30 days before your departure date that educates you about global health, cultural diversity and cultural competence, and of course eye care. Once at the location volunteers are trained on how to check visual acuity and take patient history working with a local translator. Volunteers also assist with cataloging data so that the program can track patient outcomes so that Unite For Sight can measure the impact they are having in each local community in order to develop the most effective practices for long term success.

Lastly, another thing that attracted me to the program was that there are over 25 medical schools and many optometry schools who have affiliations with Unite For Site will give their students academic credit for doing one of their clinical rotations in the program. After finding a program that provided sustainable health care to local communities, I was excited to see the school affiliations because to me it seemed to validate that the program was truly having a positive impact on the communities they are in.

I now feel like I am almost instantly attacked by mentioning that I did volunteer work abroad to anyone without being given a chance to explain the program that I did or why I chose it. I truly believe that the program is having an amazing impact on undeserved communities and wholeheartedly support it. However, I am concerned that by putting it on my application it will automatically give a negative view of me just by having the words “Global Health”.

Has anyone else had a similar experience? What are your thoughts or opinions? I really appreciate any and everyone who took the time to this long post! Thank you for your input and advice!

Pronouns: She/her

Hi! Thank you for your question! Dr. Gray covered your questions during OPM Session 178! If you have any other questions please feel free to post in the forum again!

Thank you,

Hi, JCnontrad! I’m so sorry to hear the negative feedback you received.

You’ve rolled up your sleeves and set out to parts of the world where few pre-meds are able to/want to volunteer. Don’t be discouraged. Surely the patients you helped weren’t concerned with your skin color and were thankful for the help you and your volunteer group provided.

While there certainly are valid concerns with global health volunteerism, as Dr. Gray mentioned in the podcast, you are in a unique position to demonstrate where these volunteer opportunities are, in fact, effective. You have experience that you can draw upon when talking about these experiences and, if asked, share where you think it could improve if you were to continue this in the future (a good talking point in interviews). Given your professional experience, you’re not just haphazardly volunteering. You’re surrounded by professionals with an accredited, reputable organization and volunteering in an area you have work experience.

If you’re concerned about future involvement, I’d recommend seeking out domestic opportunities to do the same. I know the Lions Club sponsors a number of eye clinics as does Remote Area Medical.

FYSA, here’s the 2011 statement from the AAMC regarding volunteering abroad:

This is incredible experience! Most advisers aren’t worth anything so take anything this adviser tells you with a grain of salt. Use your experience, tell your story, and I’d be willing to bet you’ll be in med school soon.