Commentary

Medical Volunteering: A Call to Action

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The other day, a colleague told me, after spending 10 hours volunteering his expertise as a PA at a local athletic event, what an uplifting experience it had been and, although he was tired, how invigorated he felt. Recently, a faculty member shared with me how exciting it was to see her students volunteering for Head Start, providing physical examinations for children, and an NP colleague reported on how his recent experience with Doctors Without Borders had enriched his life.

Over the past five years, I have had the opportunity not only to volunteer my expertise but also to coordinate the volunteering of both PAs and NPs for a number of events in the Competitor Group Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon series (see the CE/CME article, “Marathon Medicine”) around the country. This has been a very rewarding experience for me and, I believe, for the hundreds of PAs and NPs who have assisted. Although it is a long and tiring day, it always comes down to the knowledge that the money generated by these events goes to lymphoma and leukemia research.

“The road to success is not crowded,” as an anonymous quote goes, “because while most are looking for ways to take, the truly successful people are finding ways to give. With a giving attitude, every situation is an opportunity for success.”1

Volunteerism is defined as contributing one’s time and talents for charitable, educational, social, political, professional, or other altruistic purposes, usually in one’s community or profession, freely and without regard for compensation.2 This altruistic spirit is intertwined throughout the history of the United States. Since the 1700s, Americans have served many causes on a volunteer basis, from the women who rolled bandages and nursed soldiers in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars to the many citizens who “staffed” the Underground Railroad. Caring for the poor and disadvantaged, fighting for civil rights, and organizing political action are all largely volunteer efforts.

Unfortunately, the world is not a perfect place, and many people and communities need our help. Governments, faith-based organizations, and nonprofit entities try to meet everyone’s needs, but it is impossible for them to do it all. We become medical volunteers because we can make a difference where someone needs help.

There is no doubt that PAs and NPs, both students and graduates, can play a huge role in volunteerism in the United States and abroad. A growing number of PA and NP programs have become actively engaged in encouraging their students to participate in some form of volunteer service, as part of the curriculum or as released time, for underserved populations in this country or another. In addition to the content of didactic and clinical education, PA and NP students are—and should be—continually encouraged to become caring, community-minded health care providers.

A study by Sax, Astin, and Avalos,3 reported in the Review of Higher Education in 1999, suggests that when controlled student participation in volunteer service during the undergraduate years is strongly encouraged, volunteerism persists beyond college and is not just a short-term artifact. A positive association with a variety of cognitive and affective outcomes was also noted.

Subsequently, PA and NP graduates are expected to be leaders in their professional organizations, communities, and churches. There is no lack of opportunities to volunteer. The table lists just a few of them.

Part of being a great volunteer is enjoying what you’re doing. It is also identifying something that you’re passionate about or that inspires you, and then finding the opportunity and vehicle to fulfill that need. There are many reasons why you should volunteer; I’ve listed 10 below:

1. Help underserved/needy populations

2. Make a difference

3. Broaden your cultural awareness

4. Immerse yourself in a foreign language

5. Use your medical/surgical skills in a productive way

6. Develop new medical/surgical skills

7. Meet new people/make new friends

8. Share your experience and knowledge

9. Strengthen your résumé

10. Feel better about yourself

You need to find your incentive. Think about where and what type of volunteering project or job fits your needs and your skills.

Of course, there are reasons not to volunteer. These include:

1. Not enough time in a busy practice or educational setting

2. Worry that you don’t have the requisite skills

3. Concern about the potential for medical liability

4. Questions about the financial commitment involved

5. Apathy

Nonetheless, the best way to surmount these barriers is to muster a willingness to leave your comfort zone. There are really few restrictions that should prevent anyone from getting involved. Volunteering is good for the soul. If you are new to medical volunteering, I suggest the following steps:

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