Choosing volunteer assignments carefully and making advanced preparations are well worth the effort. Try to ensure before you go that the assignment will be safe and productive. People on-site and recent returnees are your best sources of information. The following considerations can help you decide whether you and the assignment are right for each other.
Facilities: At how many and at what kind of facilities will you be expected to work? How far are the sites from your living quarters? Who pays for and arranges transportation? What is the physical condition and upkeep of the buildings? Are electricity and uncontaminated water always available?
Working Conditions: How many patients will you see each day and what health problems will you be treating? Are there adequate drugs, supplies and equipment? Will they be familiar? Will equipment you bring work on local power sources? What kinds of laboratory, diagnostic, referral and consultation options are available? Will your skills be well utilized? Will you have administrative responsibilities? What kind of training have your coworkers had? Will local personnel be affected or offended by your presence? Will you have sufficient time off? Is “home-leave” available for those performing long-term service?
Documentation and Licensing: Are a passport, visa, vaccination certificate, local work permit or even local medical license required? Are customs documents required for medical supplies or household goods that you may be taking along? Will your sponsoring organization assist with the paperwork? Will you be signing a formal contract for your services?
Insurance: Will your current health, disability and life insurance policies cover travel and service overseas? Does your sponsoring organization provide any coverage? What medical liability insurance (if any) is required or recommended?
Personal Health: What immunizations are recommended? Are malaria prophylaxis and mosquito nets needed? Travel clinics can provide the necessary prescriptions, vaccinations, and advice.
Communication: How can you communicate with your family and sponsoring organization back home--mail, telephone, e-mail, fax, HAM radio, etc.?
In Case of Trouble: What are the safety and security issues (accidents, crime, disease, political unrest)? What steps have been taken to minimize risk and respond to problems? What help can you expect from your own country and/or local authorities in the event of difficulties? Have you left a detailed itinerary and other information (regarding passports, credit cards, travelers’ checks) with a trustworthy individual? Is there a medical evacuation plan?
Language: In what language will you communicate and keep medical records? Are interpreters available? If language training is required, who will pay for it? When will it take place?
Culture: Which customs, taboos, and religious or cultural practices will affect you, both on and off duty (body language, dress, dietary or alcohol restrictions, differing concepts of modesty)? For example, in some Muslim societies it is offensive to use the left hand for gesturing or for men to shake hands with unfamiliar women. Have you considered how you might react to culture shock, homesickness, anti-foreigner sentiment, suspicion, or ingratitude for your services?
Living Conditions/Dependents: What weather conditions and insect or animal hazards can you expect to contend with? Where will you live? Will you have sufficient privacy and security? Will you have access to electricity, sanitation facilities, uncontaminated food and potable water? Who will pay for room and board? Is it feasible to bring along your family or a partner to whom you are not married? Are there recreational opportunities?
With planning and a little research, one can avoid or improve assignments
which might otherwise be unsafe, unproductive, unrewarding, or overly demanding.