Medical Mission Trips for Nurses: Statistics, Resources & How to Help

Nurse on medical mission trip to Africa examines family members.

Nursing is more than a job, a profession or a career. A life dedicated to helping the sick and needy is a calling. As nurses become aware of the dire need for health care services in countries around the world, their calling can become a global one; they may desire to participate in a medical mission overseas. This calling should be acted on with much care and deliberation to ensure a positive outcome for caregivers, their patients and the communities in which they volunteer.

People around the world suffer and die every day because they lack access to even rudimentary health care. The goal of medical missions is to convert the contributions of volunteer nurses and other medical professionals into life-changing care for people in serious need of medical attention, whether those contributions last only a few days or extend for months or longer.

This guide will help nurses decide whether signing up for a medical mission makes sense for them. We’ll discover how to go about finding a mission and preparing for what could be one of the greatest life experiences for nurses.

Planning a Medical Mission Trip for Nurses

As with any adventure, nurses who volunteer for a medical mission must have a good idea of what to expect on the trip, what they will do and how they can avoid potential pitfalls. Emily Scott, a nurse with more than a decade of experience volunteering at home and abroad, writes on the Learning Service blog that she is much more cautious than she once was about recommending medical missions to nurses.

In particular, Scott suggests that would-be nurse volunteers carefully vet any organization they consider working with. These are among the questions to ask the organizer:

  • Will translators be available? If not, how will nurses communicate with their patients?
  • Are nurses legally allowed to practice in the host country? Scott cites the case of a group of nursing students who were allowed to practice under the license of a single local doctor, which raises ethical concerns and brings the quality of care into question.
  • Who will be responsible for ensuring there are adequate medications and supplies at the host site?
  • Is it possible to speak with a past volunteer to get a sense of their experience with the program?

The volunteer organization Foundation for Peace describes the typical financial requirements for a nurse participating in one of the group’s medical missions. For example, in-country costs for missions in the Dominican Republic are about $110 a day, while costs for missions in Haiti are about $120 a day, including arrival and departure days. The fees include food, lodging, transportation (except airfare), translators, medicine, construction supplies and security.

Requirements for Nurses to Qualify for Medical Mission Trips

The organizations that run medical missions for nurses will prepare the necessary paperwork for the trip and provide participants with information about required immunizations. However, volunteers must be sure they ask whether specific work experience or special training will be required to take part in the program.

Guidelines established by the Catholic Health Association (CHA) state that organizers of medical mission trips should avoid accepting every applicant to their programs. Instead, organizations should require that all their volunteers be vetted to ensure they work well in teams, are willing to learn from the local community and are physically and mentally healthy. Nurses must also understand the financial commitment they’ll need to make and whether they’ll need to speak the language of the host country. Lastly, volunteers must beware of organizations that put their own commercial interests above the needs of the populations they claim to be serving.

Aspects to Consider When Choosing a Medical Mission Trip

Nurses with even the best of intentions can find their volunteer efforts fall short of expectations. The AMA Journal of Ethics defines short-term experiences in global health (STEGH) as “international experiences that are short in duration (usually 1-30 days) and incorporate elements such as clinical care, public health education, research or public health practice.” However, the AMA reports that many such trips benefit the visiting volunteers more than the host institutions and the needy populations they seek to serve.

Problems with medical missions include volunteers who overstep their capabilities in practicing medicine, who undermine the work of local professionals and who are “culturally insensitive.” National Geographic points out that “voluntourism” has led to unscrupulous operators taking advantage of the altruistic motivation of volunteers by exploiting local populations. For example, Scientific American cites several examples of for-profit voluntourism operations that are more interested in meeting the needs of their paying volunteers than in serving people in need in the host countries.

Most medical missions focus on the prevention and treatment of preventable diseases and other conditions that can be medically treated. However, the Journal of Foot and Ankle Surgery (JFAS) reports that between 11% and 28% of “conditions contributing to the global burden of disease require surgical intervention.” Most of these surgeries address traumatic injuries that are the result of accidents or war, while congenital and acquired deformities are treated much less often. This gap is especially troubling because, as noted by the World Health Organization (WHO), untreated deformities account for 26,000 deaths each year.

The dearth of data on the effectiveness of short-term medical missions and the lack of program oversight has raised some alarms with public health agencies around the world, and also with health educators and health care professionals. The JFAS highlights the many challenges in applying evidence-based research to determine the effectiveness of medical missions:

  • Morbidity and mortality (M&M) and other outcomes that are typically used to measure the effectiveness of care are difficult to establish because of the inability to collect data in many overseas health care settings.
  • Local health care providers are unable to track the progress of treated patients because many of the populations are nomadic, and also because in many cases the local providers are just as transient as the people they treat.
  • The time, effort and expense of documenting outcomes takes away from the primary goals of the mission to meet the medical needs of underserved populations.
  • Patients are often reluctant to share personal information, such as their address and livelihood, for many political and socio-economic reasons, which may cause them to avoid treatment altogether.

Preparing for the Mission Environment

Nurses on a medical mission trip need to know what to expect when they arrive at the mission location. They should know how well the hospital will be supplied and equipped and whether there will be a “hospital” at the location at all. Other questions to ask the sponsor organization include what the sleeping quarters will be like, what the meals will consist of and whether the water will be safe to drink.

The CHA notes that most preparation for medical missions provided by the trip organizers is limited to flight information, immunizations and what to pack. However, nurses who are participating in medical missions express a strong desire for more information. They would like to be instructed beforehand on cultural competence, the history of the host country and the skills they will need to be able to work with the mission’s medical teams.

While most medical mission trips for nurses last only about one week, many participants believe this is too short a time for the trips to be effective. The CHA recommends that a needs assessment be conducted before the trip by both the overseas partner and the partner in the U.S. It is also important to have clear goals stated for the mission. These should come from the overseas host participants, who have a much better understanding of the needs of their patients.

The blog Two Dusty Travelers offers advice for nurses about how to choose an organization for a medical mission. One important consideration is the nursing practice area, such as obstetrics, surgery, pediatrics, oncology, geriatrics or infectious diseases. When selecting a partner organization for a mission, nurses should look for programs that emphasize their specific skills or specialization.

The time that nurses have to volunteer will be another factor in deciding which mission to choose. For example, perhaps the most popular medical mission group is Doctors Without Borders (known worldwide as Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF). It is able to choose the most-qualified volunteers for its missions and thus often requires a long-term commitment. However, most long-term missions offer participants a stipend or other nominal remuneration in exchange for their efforts.

Making the Commitment to a Medical Mission Trip

Once nurses have decided they have the time, energy and resources to invest in a medical mission, the biggest task remains: choosing a destination and an organizer to work with. Sarita Hartz, a nurse with years of experience leading and participating in African missions, explains the importance of looking at the mission from the perspective of the host caregivers.

Hartz states that the medical professionals in the host country are hoping to gain a long-term commitment from the organizations that are sponsoring the nurses’ short-term medical missions. The hope is that these countries can secure the funds and the sustained commitments to meet their long-term care goals. The mistake many nurses make when participating in a medical mission is to emphasize short-term achievements, such as the number of patients treated, the positive outcomes they achieved or the medical facilities they were able to establish.

Unfortunately, this short-term focus sometimes comes at the expense of being respectful and courteous to the local population, including caregivers and their patients. Hartz reminds nurse volunteers that they are working for the local medical staff and must be attuned to their priorities, rather than to their own personal comfort or desires. By comparison, giving up social media and other modern amenities is inconsequential.

Taking the Medical Mission Trip of a Lifetime

To know what it’s like to be on a medical mission, Two Dusty Travelers, the ethical travel blog, recommends honestly answering some pointed questions before making a commitment.

  1. Am I qualified to do the job I’m signing up for?
  2. Would I still want to volunteer if I couldn’t take ANY photos?
  3. Will my work continue to benefit the community long after I leave?
  4. Am I volunteering for the right reasons? (Not to bolster a resume or to be somebody’s savior, for example.)
  5. Do I know what I’m getting into?

The last question is actually a trick question. No volunteer really knows what they’re getting into before they leave, even those who are veterans of past medical missions. To get the most benefit out of the mission, you must be flexible and comfortable living without such modern amenities as electricity and running water. In some instances, meals may be sparse and irregular, and transportation may be spotty at best.

More importantly, the best long-lasting contributions that nurse volunteers can make involve working with local officials and mentoring local caregivers rather than treating patients. Nurses should let the host organization determine the most effective use of their skills based on the organization’s understanding of what its patients and communities need most. Keep in mind that a simple way to prepare for a mission trip is to learn as much as possible about the culture, language, economy and social life of the community in need.

The Specific Goals of the Medical Mission Trip

Some medical missions focus on a certain disease, such as HIV treatment and prevention, while others emphasize general health promotion and helping local medical staff develop leadership and outreach skills. Some missions emphasize acute care, while others are more focused on addressing chronic health conditions. In addition, many missions have a social service or religious goal.

Despite their variety, all medical missions for nurses share fundamental goals that have been formalized by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the Working Group on Ethics Guidelines for Global Health Training and other medical groups, as the AMA reports:

  • Include partner organizations in project plans and implementations
  • Evaluate educational, community and health outcomes
  • Promote the sustainability and continuity of the programs
  • Be transparent about how participants are prepared for the programs
  • Ensure reciprocity and mutual benefit for all participants
  • Encourage participants to establish long-term relationships for continued collaboration
  • Prevent the program from draining resources from local medical efforts
  • Verify that the program complies with local cultural, political and financial practices

Medical Facilities and Volunteer Accommodations

The type of facilities and living conditions nurses can expect on medical missions depends on the program they choose. For example, Foundation for Peace organizes medical mission trips to the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Kenya. These involve teams of doctors, nurses and other medical professionals who conduct mobile clinics in small towns and rural areas that lack access to any medical facilities.

Two Dusty Travelers notes that the most popular medical mission programs are also the most difficult to qualify for because they often require experience in similar clinical settings. First-time medical mission participants will likely have to gain experience by volunteering with another organization. The key is to do so with a program that is ethical and proven. One option for volunteers looking to gain experience is to sign up for a “learning mission” that involves observing others who are providing care.

How a Medical Mission Trip Changed One Nurse’s Life and Career

Few nurses considering a medical mission would expect to return home saying, “I don’t think I have ever danced and sung so much in my life.” But that’s how registered nurse Jacqueline Gallegos describes her five-week volunteer experience aboard the Africa Mercy hospital ship in Guinea. On the website Scrubbing In, Gallegos describes working with native Guineans as well as people from Sierra Leone who she says quickly “lost the title of friends and earned the title of family.”

Gallegos explains the joy she felt as patients admitted for surgery were discharged home “a new person.” She was immediately immersed in the political views, Muslim religion, dating traditions, food and culture of her new family, including African dance classes. Gallegos was inspired by the way her colleagues found reasons to celebrate even at times of great struggle. She met fellow volunteers from countries around the world. They explored the country together on their days off and formed lifelong friendships. Gallegos never expected to receive so much more from her volunteer work than she gave.

Resources and Tips for Nurses Planning a Medical Mission Trip

The first step in preparing for a medical mission is determining whether your employer offers incentives to nurses who volunteer for such programs. The clinical experience nurses gain from participating in medical missions is a valuable asset that many medical institutions will support, whether financially or through some other incentives.

When RN Debbie Urbanek decided to volunteer for a medical mission, she chose International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ) of New Zealand as the best fit for her personal goals and budget. In particular, IVHQ offered a great deal of in-country support of projects that are both sustainable and meaningful. Urbanek recommends that nurses confirm the organization they choose regularly communicates with its partners in the host country. Urbanek herself conducted research beforehand on the specific needs of the clinic in Nepal she would be working at. This enabled her to collect 50 pounds of much needed medical supplies that she brought with her on her trip.

  • Volunteering Solutions lists several medical missions planned for 2020, including opportunities in Costa Rica assisting local doctors and nurses at community clinics and in people’s homes; and in Tanzania assisting in various hospital departments such as surgery, obstetrics, physiotherapy and laboratories.
  • International Medical Relief organizes medical mission trips for nurses in dozens of countries. Trips last from three days to two weeks and prices range from $1,200 to $5,500. Destinations include Nepal, Haiti, Kenya, Guatemala, Argentina, Cambodia, Peru, Borneo, Indonesia and India.
  • The American College of Osteopathic Family Physicians provides a checklist for nurses and other medical professionals who are preparing for a medical mission. Among the steps the organization describes are checking for travel advisories related to your proposed destination, contacting the ministry of health and the U.S. consulate in the host country, ensuring the mission is appropriately staffed and supplied, creating a daily itinerary and developing an emergency plan.
  • Nurses in Mission offers an extensive list of helpful resources for nurses who are planning a medical mission. Documents include a sample support letter that can be used to request the assistance of family and friends.
  • Volunteer Forever describes medical missions for nurses and nursing students. Information covers the typical day-to-day activities of volunteers on medical missions, videos and other resources designed to help nurses find the mission that matches their skills and interests. Also offered are brief comparisons of volunteer opportunities available in various countries.

Nurses are uniquely qualified to participate in overseas medical programs that are intended to serve populations in dire need of basic health care. They have the skills and experience to treat patients in clinical settings for a variety of health conditions. But most importantly, they have the drive and the spirit to put their talents to use in underserved communities around the world. With a commitment to service and the willingness to sacrifice, nurses can join in efforts that turn lives, communities and entire populations around — and change their own lives in return.