High School Summer Medical Trips Aren’t The Only Option

For high school students who are interested in getting into medicine, public health or becoming pre-med in college, a logical step might be a high school summer service trip abroad to work in a clinic or volunteer in a hospital. While hands on medical experience can be valuable for a future medical career, be mindful of the short and longterm impacts your trip might have.

Are Service Trips the Best Way to Change the World?

High school service trips typically take place in developing countries like Haiti or India, and focus on tangible projects such as constructing a well, painting a school, or in the case of medical service trips, helping to treat patients in clinics or providing aid to a hospital.  High school service trips like this are (hopefully) founded on good intentions but are not always executed in a way that benefits the host community.  There are three common misconceptions about high school medical service trips abroad: 1) that passion and hard work alone qualify students to provide medical care, 2) that U.S. organizations/travel programs work seamlessly with organizations abroad, and that 3) short-term intervention is better than nothing.  The positive energy tied to solving global issues and helping people abroad is excellent, but we need to channel it into longterm project, ideas and beliefs.

We started Atlas Workshops to lead international trips that allow students to contribute in a meaningful way through structured research and design projects.  On every trip we lead, students tackle problems that are affecting the globe, and come up with solutions over the span of the trip.  This summer, we are going to India, Croatia, Scandinavia, and Berlin and Prague, to study a range of topics from healthcare, innovation, and technology, to entrepreneurship, economics, and sustainability.  Students will get a taste for a variety of situations and opportunities when they meet with leaders in academia and professional fields–and importantly become better problem solvers, members of a global network, and begin to develop world-changing ideas.

Who is Qualified for a Medical Volunteer Trip?

On a medical volunteer trip, high school students might be expected to give medical care to patients – but it is rare that a high school student gets the proper training first.  If you went to the doctor for a health issue, would you let a random volunteer from France treat you just because they are thinking about becoming a doctor in the future? Medical volunteers at minimum need proper training for specific assistant roles and this training shouldn’t cause any risk or harm to the patients. Just because someone is poor, doesn’t mean they deserve higher risk or sloppy healthcare.

Untrained volunteers could be giving incorrect treatment, not properly communicating to staff, or most likely, just getting in the way. In extreme cases, this type of volunteer work can even be risky to the volunteer. If you only have a short time for the trip and won’t have weeks to learn a real skill or have unrealistic expectations about your impact — take the time on your trip to change yourself first and work on longer term solutions. Observing a local clinic, and learning about specific challenges and treatments is hugely valuable. Your unique perspective will enable a long term relationship with the clinic and empower you to see new solutions through collaboration, ideas and ongoing work.

Who Do You Trust to Work With On Your High School Service Trip Abroad?

Another issue facing high school medical service trips is the lack of integration with local organizations abroad.  Many organizations abroad will accept volunteers no matter the source, because they benefit from the fees of the volunteer or don’t feel empowered enough to say no to a foreigner.  International aid work needs to be culturally sensitive, and work to balance not reinforce global power dynamics. Interventions in healthcare should be culturally relevant, like the Partners in Health hospital in Haiti and should follow global standards of healthcare delivery.

Local partnering organizations should always be able to say no – if you or your travel partner don’t build the relationship between the two groups then the program can cause more harm than good. Before you set out on your summer medical volunteer trip, ask the tough questions about local partners, impact, training, and long term ideals. Although it can be argued that the positive effects of any volunteering outweigh doing nothing, remember the negative impact of short-term service trip can last much longer than the trip itself and even longer than some of the best construction projects

Finding the Right Alternative Global Health Trip This Summer

High school summer trips can undoubtedly give students memorable, life-changing experiences.  Atlas Workshops was founded to create actionable travel that inspires ideas and global change in a new way. for our 2016 summer trip to India we decided to focus on healthcare innovation. Rather than send untrained medical volunteers into a clinic, we will set out to understand health challenges and brainstorm new ideas in context.

We think this program is a perfect alternative for most high school students interested in global health. We will learn from clinics and hospitals dealing with huge issues and working on major innovations. We will expose our students to different ways of thinking by meeting with top innovators in the region. We will partner with respected organizations as equals to get a deeper understanding and true feedback on our work. We will challenge our students to think about healthcare as businesses, technologies, and people so we can broaden the skill set as future leaders. We will keep our students and our partners safe, by avoiding high risk clinical environments which students are not prepared for. Finally, we will approach India as a hub of innovation, challenge, and opportunity, not a poor country in need of unskilled help–so we can further the creativity of ourselves and our partners.

Are you interested in getting in becoming an innovator in the global health field? Join our global innovators summer trip to India: Cutting Edge Global Health. If you want us to offer more trips like this in the future, or even develop a custom program for you, get in touch!