Are Medical Mission Trips Worth It?

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Introduction

On paper, taking a medical mission trip seems like a fantastic opportunity to expand one’s horizons and deliver compassionate care to the less fortunate. While this can certainly be true, there are a lot of factors to consider when it comes to these trips. It is not always such a simple matter, and there are certainly downsides to these trips as well. Students often romanticize the idea of traveling to a distant country to aid the impoverished and needy while exploring a foreign country’s diversity. Unfortunately, in real life this not always the case. Over the years, medical mission trips have garnered at best a mixed reputation for several reasons.  

Potential Downside of Medical Mission Trips

People who go on these trips, by the very nature of the demographic who seek them, usually have very little clinical exposure. If you are someone who plans to attend medical school in the United States, it is imperative that you have clinical experience within the US. There are plenty of volunteer and clinical opportunities with underserved populations within American cities. It may be more worthwhile for you and more beneficial to patients if you focus your efforts here in the US. Overall, if you put in the adequate amount of time, volunteering in domestic clinics will likely be more impressive to admissions officers. A potential treacherous component of these trips is the opportunity to perform procedures that you would not otherwise be able to in the US. This is not necessarily bad. For example, taking vitals such as blood pressure can be a unique opportunity an undergraduate volunteer may not get in the states. On the other other hand, performing actual medical procedures which you are not qualified for and would otherwise not legally be able to perform in the US (such as giving injections) can be a dangerous game. It may seem as if giving injections to impoverished individuals in third world countries is a noble action. While the intentions may be true, medical schools admissions committees may not view this in such a flattering manner. In fact, they may see it as irresponsible because someone is performing procedures they do not have the qualifications and training to perform. This is of course an ethical issue as well. Instead of helping individuals, students may cause harm due to the lack of appropriate skills and qualifications. It is important to avoid this if you are going to travel on a medical mission trip.  

Potential Upside of Medical Mission Trips

Now it may sound as if I am bashing medical missions trips, but that is certainly not the case. As with most things in life, there are two sides to the story. There are certainly positive aspects of the experience. A medical mission trip can be a very powerful addition to an application, if and only if it is done in the right manner. First of all, what are your reasons for wanting to pursue such an endeavor? What is motivating you to leave your comfort zone and aid others in impoverished countries? These are questions you should be asking yourself if you are considering such a trip. It is imperative that you have the right intentions and motivations for going on a mission trip. You will have to explain your goals and motivations on admissions essays and discuss them in person if granted an interview. Be sure your desire to go on these trips and help others is genuine and that it fits your overall goals and personal story. Perhaps you have a genuine interest in global health and would like to explore how a legitimate organization helps populations in need. This is a reasonable motivation which fits your goals. Make sure you have the right reasons. That brings me to the next point: be absolutely sure that the organization with which you are taking your trip is legitimate and well-established with its target community. Also be sure that it has a lasting presence there, and that it is meant for the long term betterment and empowerment of that community. Quick visits with no lasting impact can be viewed poorly in the big picture. Ultimately this is a decision that you must make based on your values and goals. To help you come to a well-thought out conclusion, what follows is a more specific pros and cons list of attending a medical mission trip.  

 

Cons of a Medical Mission Trip 

1 | Can often be very expensive

2 | There is a chance that the care harms instead of helps a population. Be sure that the organization is legitimate, well-reputed, and there are licensed physicians as a part of your group.

3 | There are ethical concerns with untrained students giving medical care in a foreign country. Remember, you will be doing more harm to your chances than good if you attempt any procedures you aren’t qualified for. Admissions officers will likely view this as irresponsible.

4 | There are other opportunities to help those in need within your own communities, and these can be more long-lasting experiences which may augment your application more.

5 | Programs may not provide lasting benefit to the communities they reach. Look for those organizations that have a plan to empower the native population or create sustainable systems.

 

Pros of a Medical Mission Trip

1 | Allows you to leave your comfort zone and expand your horizons.

2 | Provides an excellent chance to nurture your passion for medicine and helping those in need.

3 | Provides ample opportunity to gain clinical exposure and patient contact. (Be sure you have sufficient clinical exposure in the US in addition to these trips. Do not perform procedures which you have no qualifications for. Hand them over to a supervisor or professional).

4 | Allows you to network and build lasting relationships with peers and potentially natives of the country you visit.

5 | Can be a great exposure to global health (if done with the right organization).

6 | Allows you to travel the world. 

7 | Can be a highly fun and rewarding experience which can help assure you that medicine is the right career for you.

 

Conclusion

Medical mission trips are something to be considered as they can be great life experiences which may add to the strength of the application if done correctly. Overall though, the application benefit is likely marginal and there are downsides to be wary of and to avoid. Be sure to think through the points discussed here before making your final decision. If you have need any guidance regarding this decision (or decisions about your overall extracurricular activities), consider our general advising services. Med School Insiders has expertise on all these topics and is excited to help and guide you in any way you may need!
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