Why you should volunteer during residency

By Alpana Mohta, MD, DNB, FEADV, FIADVL, IFAAD | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published April 15, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Volunteering during residency provides essential hands-on patient care experience and develops critical soft skills like empathy and communication.

  • It aids professional growth through exposure to varied medical conditions, boosts career prospects, and offers networking and leadership opportunities.

  • The benefits of volunteering extend beyond your professional life: It's a genuine escape from the daily grind, helping to combat burnout while connecting with and helping people from all walks of life.

Mahatma Gandhi said it best: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” I believe that, during medical residency, volunteering can be remarkably beneficial for both your personal and professional life.

Volunteering as a soft skill can really set you apart in your residency program, giving you an edge over others.

But it's not just good for your career—it also deepens your capacity for empathy and sharpens your communication skills. For doctors, these assets are invaluable, because every day we are asked to effectively, and empathetically, interact with a variety of different patients. 

How to find the right opportunity

Consider your interests and career goals when selecting volunteer work. Options range from local organizations to international programs. Here are a few ways to contribute without financial commitments.

Assist the American Red Cross

About 90% of the American Red Cross disaster relief workforce consists of volunteers, including medical and mental health professionals.[] This offers a great way to aid your community during emergencies.

If you are new to volunteering, you can also try their volunteer role finder quiz to determine the right role for you.

Check out local resources

Local medical societies or state professional organizations could be the initial contact points for someone unsure about where to begin. You can also consider reaching out to charities, foundations, research centers, hospitals, or clinics.

Go global

Volunteering for international humanitarian missions in low- and middle-income countries is also an excellent way to gain practical knowledge, as reported in the American Journal of Surgery.[] The study notes that international surgery missions expose surgery residents to a more expansive volume and diverse range of cases than usual, developing their competency as proficient surgeons.

Some noteworthy organizations offering overseas medical volunteer opportunities include Health Volunteers Overseas, The Real Uganda, GoEco, Máximo Nivel, and International Volunteer HQ.

What volunteering can do for you

Hands-on experience

In top-notch residency programs, getting hands-on experience can be tough during the first or even second year. Hospitals and patients often hesitate to let new grads lead patient care. You're learning, but always under close watch from your supervisors.

Volunteering can bridge this gap. It's a chance to get more practical experience with patients and enhance technical skills, which can prepare you for real-world clinical practice.[]

Personal fulfillment

Volunteering can give a sense of satisfaction that money or professional accolades can't match. As a resident doctor, engaging in altruistic activities lets you see the direct impact of your skills on people's lives.

A remedy for burnout

Working as a volunteer offers you a break from the intense scheduling and the constant race against the clock in regular hospital settings, allowing for more meaningful patient interactions.

A review in Journal of Emergency Medicine suggests that regular volunteering boosts mental health and helps clinicians facing or at risk of burnout—by offering a break from personal issues, adding value and meaning to life, boosting self-confidence, improving mood, and fostering connections with different cultures.[]

Both medical and non-medical volunteer work can help doctors reconnect with their profession, offering personal growth and a renewed sense of their work's value and impact.

Broaden your perspective

Volunteering exposes doctors to a broader spectrum of health-related issues beyond clinical settings, including socio-economic factors affecting patient health. This helps develop cultural competence and increase awareness of the current status of global health care.

Research published in Academic Medicine reported that resident physicians working for humanitarian missions gained a greater understanding of “medical triage, public health, rationing of scarce medical resources, and medical practice in other countries.”[]

Many doctors experience patients' gratitude in volunteer settings, a stark contrast to the often transactional nature of paid medical services.

Professional growth 

You might not always gain hands-on experience. Sometimes, you're just handing out food or flyers. So, why bother?

For starters, it's almost an unofficial requirement for med school, and it looks great on your CV.

It shows your strong commitment to healthcare and knack for dealing with diverse patient groups and a broad range of medical conditions not routinely observed at residency training hospitals or medical centers.

For instance, the study published in Academic Medicine found that 3rd-year internal medicine residents on humanitarian missions reported a gain in clinical knowledge of tropical diseases like leprosy, malaria, leptospirosis, tuberculosis, filariasis, and helminths.

Plus, this kind of experience shines during job interviews. A 2020 review points out that volunteering has been linked to improving career development and job prospects for resident doctors.[] It proves you have hands-on problem-solving skills and a love for medicine.

Community service also opens doors for potential research publications in epidemiology and cost-effectiveness, as data from underserved communities you volunteer with is often unrecorded or unpublished. Additionally, volunteering provides opportunities for leadership roles and networking, which can be invaluable for career advancement.

Just don’t forget to keep a record

Keep detailed logs of your activities, hours spent, and contact information of supervisors or leaders in these initiatives. This detailed record-keeping will be helpful for your resume and future job applications. You could also maintain a reflective journal about these experiences with your insights.

What this means for you

Volunteer work is more than a service to others. For resident doctors, it offers a pathway to connect deeply with patients, understand the broader healthcare context, and develop professionally and personally. It impacts the lives of those you serve and profoundly shapes your life and career in medicine.

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