Perceptions of short-term medical volunteer work: a qualitative study in Guatemala

Global Health. 2009 Feb 26:5:4. doi: 10.1186/1744-8603-5-4.


Background: Each year medical providers from wealthy countries participate in short-term medical volunteer work in resource-poor countries. Various authors have raised concern that such work has the potential to be harmful to recipient communities; however, the social science and medical literature contains little research into the perceptions of short-term medical volunteer work from the perspective of members of recipient communities. This exploratory study examines the perception of short-term medical volunteer work in Guatemala among groups of actors affected by or participating in these programs.

Methods: The researchers conducted in-depth, semi-structured interviews with 72 individuals, including Guatemalan healthcare providers and health authorities, foreign medical providers, non-medical personnel working on health projects, and Guatemalan parents of children treated by a short-term volunteer group. Detailed notes and summaries of these interviews were uploaded, coded and annotated using Atlas.ti (Scientific Software Development GmbH, Berlin) to identify recurrent themes from the interviews.

Results: Informants commonly identified a need for increased access to medical services in Guatemala, and many believed that short-term medical volunteers are in a position to offer improved access to medical care in the communities where they serve. Informants most frequently cited appropriate patient selection and attention to payment systems as the best means to avoid creating dependence on foreign aid. The most frequent suggestion to improve short-term medical volunteer work was coordination with and respect for local Guatemalan healthcare providers and their communities, as insufficient understanding of the country's existing healthcare resources and needs may result in perceived harm to the recipient community.

Conclusion: The perceived impact of short-term medical volunteer projects in Guatemala is highly variable and dependent upon the individual project. In this exploratory study, project characteristics were identified that are consistently perceived to be either positive or negative. These findings have direct implications for anyone involved in the planning and execution of short-term medical volunteer projects, including local and foreign medical team members, project planners and coordinators, and health authorities. Most importantly, this preliminary study suggests avenues for future study and evaluation of the impact of short-term medical volunteer programs on local health care services.