Your dollar goes further when you stay home

3 minute read

Some hero doctors do the hard yards saving lives overseas, but for most of us, giving a little can make a much bigger difference.

Voluntourism is an enticing form of travel: exotic locales, cultural immersion, serving needy populations with your skills – all wrapped up in your four weeks’ annual leave.

Not so fast. Before packing your passport and mosquito net, listen to The Medical Republic Podcast to hear from two guests who might make you reconsider.

Dr Andrew Browning has been doing fistula surgery in Africa through the Barbara May Foundation for around 25 years. He says it’s life-changing for patients who start to live normal lives again after the deeply distressing injury caused by obstructed labour. However, Dr Browning says a donation that funds local health workers may better support outcomes than a short-term volunteering stint.

“When you’re there for a short term the people don’t know you, you don’t know them,” Dr Browning says. “You don’t know the culture, you don’t know the way things work or don’t work.

“The people there are very polite, very long-suffering, and will put up with you for the time that you’re there. Then as soon as you leave, they just go back to their normal ways.”

There are some spaces for shorter-term volunteers if you have specialised in obstetrics, gynecology or midwifery, he says.

“Around 40% of these girls [with fistulas] have been suicidal or attempted suicide with this injury, 100% of them are depressed. And when you treat them they just turn back to normal, happy citizens,” Dr Browning says.

It’s the kind of heroic work that many doctors dream of, says Sydney rheumatologist Dr Rob Baume. After a bout of professional burnout, Dr Baume considered medical voluntourism but ended up staying put.

“When I did a bit of more research, I found that unless you have a specific specialty such as anesthetist or an obstetrician, you need to sign up for nine months. The other part of the equation is that I don’t speak the language. Then there’s also the cost, the health risks and the risk to your life,” he said.

Instead of volunteering himself, Dr Baume has just reached a milestone: raising $1 million for healthcare in developing nations through his charity, Twice the Doctor.

Dr Baume says research by Dr Greg Lewis shows that if a doctor wants to make maximum impact on the world, it doesn’t matter which specialisation they have. They just have to give a little of what they make to people who will make the most use of it.

You can listen and subscribe to the show by searching for “The Medical Republic” in your favourite podcast player.

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