Background: Growing concerns about the value and effectiveness of short-term volunteer trips intending to improve health in underserved Global South communities has driven the development of guidelines by multiple organizations and individuals. These are intended to mitigate potential harms and maximize benefits associated with such efforts.
Method: This paper analyzes 27 guidelines derived from a scoping review of the literature available in early 2017, describing their authorship, intended audiences, the aspects of short term medical missions (STMMs) they address, and their attention to guideline implementation. It further considers how these guidelines relate to the desires of host communities, as seen in studies of host country staff who work with volunteers.
Results: Existing guidelines are almost entirely written by and addressed to educators and practitioners in the Global North. There is broad consensus on key principles for responsible, effective, and ethical programs--need for host partners, proper preparation and supervision of visitors, needs assessment and evaluation, sustainability, and adherence to pertinent legal and ethical standards. Host country staff studies suggest agreement with the main elements of this guideline consensus, but they add the importance of mutual learning and respect for hosts.
Conclusions: Guidelines must be informed by research and policy directives from host countries that is now mostly absent. Also, a comprehensive strategy to support adherence to best practice guidelines is needed, given limited regulation and enforcement capacity in host country contexts and strong incentives for involved stakeholders to undertake or host STMMs that do not respect key principles.
Keywords: Best practices; Global health education; Guidelines; Short-term medical missions; Standards; Volunteers.