Ethical considerations for volunteering abroad

Volunteering abroad can be a great chance to contribute to the advancement of global oral health. However, did you know that service trips could potentially do more harm than good? Before you pack your bags, make sure that you are prepared to volunteer responsibly. Set yourself up to be an ethical advocate of global health by reviewing these important topics.

Before you travel

1. Evaluate your intentions. The combination of volunteering and tourism, known as “voluntourism,” is a growing trend. Having the opportunity to travel to an exotic place while giving back to those in need may sound like a great combination, but it actually has the potential to severely disrupt local health care paradigms, especially if foreign volunteer groups duplicate or compete with services offered by local providers, according to the Journal of Dental Education. An article in the Huffington Post reported that patients in areas visited by foreign volunteers are less likely to seek out services through their own local health care systems, often resulting in delay of care for issues that require attention.

Besides the chance to travel, a volunteer trip abroad can seem like a good way to quickly boost your application or CV. Be aware that long-term involvement in your local community may be more valuable to admissions committees than a week-long trip to a foreign country. A service trip should not be done just to “check off a box.”

2. Choose the right program. While most volunteer efforts have good intentions, short-term service trips often fail to address the long-term needs of patients. Look for organizations that are dedicated to sustainability in underserved areas. These programs have established relationships with a local community and are better equipped to work with local providers to ensure continuity of care.

Besides providing treatments, a good program also empowers patients with education. Teaching good oral hygiene and preventative care addresses the underlying cause of many of the problems, explains a British Dental Journal column. Avoid any opportunities to travel with unofficial or independent volunteer groups. These may put you and the patients in dangerous, uncomfortable or unethical situations.

3. Develop cultural competency. Aspects of U.S. culture may be taboo in other countriesso becoming knowledgeable about the customs and beliefs of your host community can help build bridges to better serve patients and avoid awkward or uncomfortable scenarios. Professional organizations should be able to provide you with pre-departure training or resources regarding sensitive topics and appropriate conduct. Developing cultural awareness of the community you will serve can help to create trust and greatly enhance your volunteer experience.

While you are abroad

1. Be a responsible volunteer. For predental students, your primary role as a volunteer is to observe practitioners and learn, as you would during shadowing at home. Although it may seem like gaining clinical experience treating disadvantaged patients would strengthen your application, ADEA’s “Guidelines for Predental Students Providing Patient Care During Clinical Experiences Abroad” warns that performing unauthorized procedures may jeopardize your chances of getting accepted to dental school.

As a dental student under the supervision of a faculty member, you may have more flexibility to perform procedures. At any level, be aware of the laws and limitations, and do not engage in any activities that you are not trained to perform. To ensure patient safety, you must stay committed to working under the highest ethical standards, just as you would in the United States.

2. Respect patient privacy. Rules for patient privacy in foreign countries, especially underdeveloped and underserved nations, might seem more relaxed than the HIPAA laws we have United States, but it is important to adhere to those same standards abroad. Treat patients with the same respect and diligence that you would back in the United States. While it may seem harmless to post heartwarming pictures of adoring local children on social media, sharing pictures without informed consent is crossing an ethical boundary and may reflect poorly upon you as a future health care provider.

3. Be willing to learn and have fun. Although volunteering abroad is associated with many responsibilities, equipping yourself with the knowledge necessary to stay within ethical boundaries ensures that you are keeping your patients and yourself safe. If you are passionate about global oral health, participating in a service trip can be a profound and enjoyable learning experience.

~Alwileed Kalout, Cleveland State University ’18, Predental 

Alwilleed Kalout

Alwilleed (Will) Kalout obtained his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Cleveland State University before deciding to pursue a career in dentistry. He enjoys playing basketball, writing and traveling around the United States and the world. He is a member of The Ohio State University’s DDS class of 2024.

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