Project: Minimum Ethical Standards for Short-Term Medical Experience

By Lawrence Loh, MD MPH —-

Since 2007 our volunteers have driven a number of enormously successful research projects looking at physician involvement in global health and the nature of short-term medical and global health experiences abroad. As always, The 53rd Week has conducted our research with the following underlying premises:

  • short-term experiences are happening day in, and day out, and that exhortations by various groups in the global health community have failed to stop their spread;
  • in and of themselves, short term experiences are an investment of money and volunteer effort that are done with the best of intentions, but in their present form are poorly deployed;
  • appropriate conduct of such efforts could retain benefits that are enjoyed by the volunteers and sending organisations / institutions, while improving impact for communities and populations being served abroad. 

It is with these premises in mind that our research has tried to answer the question of “what” is appropriate, less harmful participation in short-term experiences abroad. Our work is predicated on the model that short-term isnt all bad, and that  people are still going to chase the benefits they accrue - the exposure to a foreign culture, the chance to travel, the ability to be seen to “do good”... institutions will continue to benefit from the reputational and public relations benefits such offerings provide… and communities abroad will still benefit from the human connection and the ability to forge bridges. Its a matter of making them more impactful, of meaningfully harvesting these efforts, since theyre happening anyway.

One of our most exciting projects that has recently started has been an attempt to develop a set of minimum ethical standards for short-term medical experiences abroad. At present there are a lot of themes and ethical ideas being bounced about but there isnt really anything clear that says what makes one efforts “more responsible or ethical” than another. Thus, led by our capable project leader Felicity Williamson, a New Zealand doctor, and her team from the University of Toronto (William Cherniak, Gabilan Sivapatham, and Salem Alexi Raman), The 53rd Week is trying to come up with a quick and simple check-list by which institutions can evaluate their efforts and trainees / young professionals can figure if their one week is being given to a group doing things responsibly.

Our data sources range from reviewing existing literature and codes of conduct, to the promises and profiles of registered organisations offering such opportunities abroad (in an environmental scan.) Well also look to speak with experts in the field from a variety of schools of thought; the hard-core “dont go” types and the “always go any help is better than no help” ends of the spectrum and everyone in between. The hope is that putting things all together, we can start identifying tangible, easy criteria that can act almost as a checklist rather than an appeal to the moral compass.

Any such checklist would eventually need to be piloted and tested, and questionnaires need to be able to cover all angles, but our group continues to work on this and things together. Myself, Henry and the rest of the Minimum Standards team hopes that our contribution will be one small piece in the global health community to take a different perspective of looking at short-term medical experiences.

Learn about our other research projects and programs by clicking here. Our hope is that our work will eventually turn the tide and improve the impact of short-term experiences abroad.


Dr. Lawrence Loh is co-founder and Director of Operations at The 53rd Week.

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