Physician volunteerism: The surprising benefits for doctors who do it

By Liz Meszaros, MDLinx
Published October 18, 2018

Key Takeaways

Can physicians—who are notoriously overworked—find time in their busy schedules to volunteer? Could volunteering actually help ease physician burnout? The answer to both questions is a resounding “Yes.”

It turns out that helping others is good for the human soul. And for physicians, who often bear the brunt of administrative responsibilities, patient illnesses, and tight daily schedules, a little soul boosting can go a long way. In fact, many physicians claim that volunteering can be refreshing and actually help reignite their passion for medical practice.

The many benefits of volunteerism for both mind and body include:

  • Counteracting the effects of stress, anger, and anxiety
  • Combating depression
  • Increasing self-confidence
  • Providing a sense of purpose
  • Protecting against cognitive and physical decline
  • Connecting you to others
  • Advancing your career
  • Bringing fun and fulfillment

Additionally, researchers from the Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, found that mortality may actually be significantly reduced in individuals who provided support to spouses, friends, relatives, and neighbors.

First-hand accounts

Louis Weinstein, MD, is a retired obstetrician/gynecologist who volunteers his time at the Barrier Islands Free Medical Clinic in Charleston, SC. He told the AMA Wire that he encourages other physicians to volunteer for many reasons.

“The return I get on volunteering is [tremendous] because when I go home, I know I’ve done everything possible to potentially make a difference in someone’s life,” said Dr. Weinstein.

When asked what he enjoyed most about volunteering, he replied: “Since the clinic operates on grants and government financing, I don’t have to work under the same time constraints as most physicians in private practice. I don’t have to see a patient every 15 minutes. There are no economics involved, and that’s what makes this so much fun.”

But, there are challenges as well. The inability to help patients due to limited resources is perhaps the hardest, according to Dr. Weinstein. But, the benefits far outweigh the negatives.

“I can spend time with my patients. Anything I do for them is because I genuinely want to do it. If a patient needs a biopsy, I schedule it for 40 minutes, or I take an additional 10 minutes talking to them about smoking cessation rates. If spending extra time talking to my patients can prevent one stroke, one heart attack or break the cycle of poverty for one person, then I’ve done more than enough. It was more than worth it to me,” Dr. Weinstein concluded.

Researchers have even gone so far as to study the benefits of volunteering for clinicians. In a mixed-methods study (online survey plus follow-up interview), researchers led by Laura McGeehan, PhD, instructor of anthropology, Department of Biological Sciences, Mt. San Antonio College, Walnut, CA, assessed the perceptions, motivations, functions, and barriers associated with physician volunteering in four safety-net clinics in San Bernardino County, Southern California. They included 31 physician volunteers (median age: 49 years; 61% female) who belonged to the Southern California Permanente Medical Group.

Volunteers were equally divided between primary care and specialty practices. A full 84% had previously volunteered, and 48% were currently volunteering outside of the safety net clinic.

In breaking down the responses, McGeehan et al. found the following:

  • Physicians had positive perceptions of their service as volunteers
  • Most were motivated by humanitarian or prosocial desires
  • Volunteering offered them an escape from the pressures of their “regular” physician jobs

Physicians reported very few barriers to volunteering, the most common of which was a lack of time. Professionally, hurdles to overcome included issues with the organization and supplies at the clinic. Patient challenges included transportation issues, as well as social and financial challenges.

Volunteer opportunities

Opportunities for physician volunteering abound both locally and internationally. Locally, free clinics, schools, shelters, and the Red Cross all offer avenues to meaningful volunteer work close to home. While many international programs give doctors the opportunity to travel—usually overseas—while volunteering.

If you’d like to look for volunteering opportunities, here are a few places to start:

So, roll up your sleeves and dive in. The benefits for yourself and to others are numerous. By all accounts, volunteering can enrich your life, as well as your career.

This study from McGeehan et al. was supported by the School of Advanced Studies, University of Phoenix, AZ.

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