One of the most rewarding aspects of my medical career was volunteering at medical clinics in India. It wasn’t easy, but the experience was incredibly enriching.
I split my time between an OB/GYN clinic and a rural, general medicine clinic, where patients traveled on foot and by bus to wait in line for hours. I delivered babies and performed episiotomies, I was bribed on multiple occasions for a gender ultrasound (which is illegal in India), and I examined patients with extreme medical conditions.
Sharing your gift
"As physicians, we have dedicated our entire lives to others, and we have such a rare gift."
— Kristen Fuller, MD
Volunteering our time and services not only helps those who cannot afford medical care, but it also gives us a new perspective.
While it is a worthwhile pursuit, the reality of volunteering is complicated given our tight time constraints and the emotional toll. Most of us are already overworked, exhausted, and burned out. And many of us wonder, how could we ever volunteer our services when we can barely make time for ourselves and our families?
Find your “why”
I am a long-distance runner, but I can become so fatigued and burned out during training that I question why I even do it. The truth is, I love it—to me, long-distance running and medicine are similar in that they require hard work, discipline, and lots of your time. They both require that you “find your why” to be able to stick it out and find joy in the process. Volunteering is like this, too.
Ask yourself, why do you want to volunteer your time? There is no wrong answer here. Maybe you want to help others who cannot afford medical care, and because it makes you feel good. Perhaps you feel like you owe it back to your community, or it's your debt to pay for having a successful career.
Taking time to sort through your thoughts and find your “why” can help you manage your schedule to make room for volunteering.
Set realistic goals
Many volunteer organizations offer short-term opportunities that allow you to volunteer when it suits you: once a week, once a month, or once a quarter. Set realistic goals with your time and start small. Talk this over with your friends, family, and colleagues so they understand you are taking on a new volunteer opportunity that may take time away from them.
Depending on your goals, you could cut back on your practice hours or volunteer during weekends or evenings. Keep an honest and open line of communication with the organization regarding how much time you can give to set reasonable expectations.
Finding the right fit
So many physicians I know want to volunteer their services, but they’re not sure how to start. There are extensive volunteer opportunities in medicine, so consider working with a few organizations to find the right fit.
Maybe you spend all day in an outpatient clinic at work, so you don’t want to spend even more hours in this setting—that’s great, there is an opportunity out there for you!
Types of volunteering
Work at a free clinic
Local community free clinics are always busy and in need of more practitioners. Volunteering in a new clinic can allow you to cater to a diverse patient population with different needs, which can hone and improve your clinical skills, with opportunities to network with other clinicians.
This could be writing for websites, your hospital newsletter, or even your own blog. You may want to write to help educate the general public on common medical problems, the politics associated with medicine, or the realities of being a physician in a broken healthcare system.Related: Why I believe every physician should write
Writing can be a great creative outlet for yourself and a great way to educate the general public and your fellow medical community on topics of your choice.
"As a physician, you have a voice, and people will listen."
— Kristen Fuller, MD
This can range from teaching at community colleges, your kid’s science fair, volunteering your time at high school and college career days, or teaching medical students in your hospital or clinic. Maybe you can have a college student shadow you in your practice for a day, or mentor medical students rotating through your hospital.
Volunteer for the Red Cross
Whether it is blood drives or disaster relief programs, the majority of people who volunteer for the Red Cross are healthcare personnel. This could involve traveling to an area that was impacted by a natural disaster, or somewhere a little closer to home.
Serve an international cause
A simple Google search of international service organizations for physicians will give you endless travel opportunities worldwide.
Whether working in rural clinics, helping with cleft lip and palate surgeries, skin grafts for burn victims, or pelvic floor reconstructive surgeries, the list of international missions for physicians is endless.
This can be a one-week, two-week, or multiple-month assignment. You can even tack it on to your vacation and use it as a travel opportunity (in this instance, you may even benefit from tax deductions for business travel).
Volunteer at a sporting event
Sporting events and races always need volunteer medical staff to help out at the medical aid stations. Maybe you love being outdoors, or you love to road bike but don’t have time. This could be a great way to get back into the sport (even from afar), while volunteering your medical services.
If you don’t have time at the moment (or the passion, if you are still figuring out your “why”) you can donate money to one of your favorite charities. This is one of the easiest ways to give back without the added stress of figuring out how to pack even more activities into your already jam-packed physician schedule.
Each week in our "Real Talk" series, mental health advocate Kristen Fuller, MD, shares straight talk about situations that affect the mental and emotional health of today's healthcare providers. Each column offers key insights to help you navigate these challenging experiences. We invite you to submit a topic you'd like to see covered.