HealthFebruary 03, 2020

4 ways to give back as a physician volunteer

By: Bana Jobe

Though the holidays may be near, the spirit of giving lasts all year long. Luckily, there are ample opportunities to pay it forward, beyond just writing a check (though, of course, that always helps). For example, have you ever considered getting involved as a physician volunteer? Doing so can mutually benefit not only your community but you yourself, too.

Research published in BMC Public Health found that volunteering can support mental and physical health, including increased life satisfaction and social well-being and decreased risk of depression. For clinicians especially, this becomes all the more important as burnout continues to plague the medical community. Medical volunteering may be an avenue to use your training and specific skill sets for the common good, while enjoying the uplifting effects of helping others. And indeed, other benefits of clinical philanthropy await as well, including potentially boosting local awareness of your practice, meeting fellow practitioners/volunteers and perhaps even reconnecting with the original reasons you pursued medicine in the first place.

4 Ways to give back as a physician volunteer

If you want to be part of the physician philanthropy movement, know this: You have unique skills and training that many local organizations desperately need. Consider putting those abilities to charitable use with these four non-monetary opportunities to get involved.

1. Volunteer at a free clinic

In 2016, a survey published in the Permanente Journal explored physicians' perceptions of volunteering at safety-net clinics, a popular choice for volunteer service as it enables practitioners to employ their background and training pro bono. In that survey, physicians noted that the service allowed them to escape from their day-to-day stressors — and that working in different environments challenged them professionally.

How to Get Started: Search for a free clinic near you and reach out to ask about volunteer opportunities. Just make sure that you're covered for malpractice, either individually or through the clinic.

2. Support the American Red Cross

Roughly 90% of the people who support the American Red Cross's disaster relief efforts are volunteers, and clinicians such as registered nurses, medical doctors and mental health professionals are all eligible to serve as disaster health services volunteers. Contributing to those efforts can be a wonderful way to support your local community through times of need while working with a well-known cause.

How to Get Started: Review the American Red Cross's eligibility criteria for health services, and then apply online or contact your local chapter to learn more.

3. Mentor medical students

Did a mentor make a difference in your life? Pay it forward by supporting the next generation of med students, either through sharing your own career experiences or allowing students to shadow you in the clinic.

How to Get Started: Contact a local medical school, or ask about mentor programs within your medical society or specialty group. Many associations, such as the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American College of Physicians, offer dedicated programs and resources for matching students with mentors.

4. Serve an international cause

In a 2015 survey in the Journal of Compassionate Health Care, 32% of respondents reported offering pro bono services internationally. Going abroad for an overseas volunteering trip accommodates many clinicians' interests in humanitarian efforts, medicine and travel in a meaningful way. For example, one otolaryngology resident wrote in MD Magazine about his experience performing cleft lip and palate surgeries for children and young adults in Peru, calling the trip a life-changing one that helped him recharge and reconnect with why he chose medicine.

How to Get Started: While the American Medical Association has discontinued its Physician Opportunities Portal, many websites dedicated to volunteering abroad provide medicine-specific program reviews and descriptions. Nonprofit Health Volunteers Overseas also offers opportunities for medical professionals to help mitigate global health shortages.

Overcoming the barrier of time restraints

Of course, volunteering can be a challenge for time-strapped physicians. In fact, the Permanente Journal survey found that 42% of doctors expressed a lack of time as a significant barrier to volunteering.

To help overcome these logistical restraints, set realistic goals about what you can (and can't) fit into your schedule, and stick to those. Many organizations offer short-term or ad hoc opportunities so that physicians can help here and there when they have time. For some doctors, that might be a weekly commitment. For others, it might be once a month or once a quarter. Or you might choose to rotate volunteer shifts with others in your clinic. All of these can be great options.

After all, giving back should be a mutually rewarding experience; it shouldn't add to your burnout. The right opportunity for you is out there — it's just a matter of finding it!

Bana Jobe