A cautionary tale of volunteerism

NPR’s Goats and Soda blog recently published two features on the perils of volunteers practicing beyond their knowledge and/or training.

 The first tells the story of Renee Bach, an American woman who started a malnutrition clinic in Jinja, Uganda despite having no previous medical training. However, within a year of opening, the clinic was admitting very sick children with complicated medical conditions even though the facility did not have a Ugandan health license and there was initially no physician on staff. In the first year, approximately 20% of the children admitted to the clinic died. Now, almost 10 years after opening, a Ugandan civil rights attorney has filed a lawsuit against Bach on behalf of the mothers of two of the children who died at the clinic.

The second is an opinion piece by Dr. Lawrence Loh, an adjunct professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. He provides several examples of unethical conduct carried out under the guise of “volunteering.” Importantly, he defines basic requirements to which organizations should adhere before sending volunteers, including a rigorous skills-based process for volunteer recruitment.

 Volunteers practicing beyond their training is not only useless, but can also cause harm, as outlined in these two pieces. Therefore, ethical concerns around appropriate practice must be considered before anyone considers volunteering in a resource limited setting.  Pathologists Overseas is an organization that would not exist without volunteers. Whenever we partner with institutions in other countries, we are careful to define the needs of those institutions and carefully vet appropriate volunteers who have the required training and skills. We want to ensure that both the volunteers and partnering institutions have an enriching experience.   

Mark Brown