Mission Driven

Come together: How DOs approach local, international volunteer work

How do you serve others? DOs who treat underserved patients locally and internationally share their insights.


After his first year of medical school, Logan Banks, DO, realized he wanted to devote his career to treating underserved patients. While volunteering as part of a medical mission in Cochabamba, a city in central Bolivia in the valley of the Andes Mountains, Dr. Banks was stunned by the severity of illness he saw in his patients.

“I saw many illnesses that don’t exist in the U.S. or don’t progress to such an extreme extent because we’ve taken care of things like sanitation, clean water and access to health care,” he says. “But in many places in the world, these things are not available. It really breaks your heart.”

One woman, Dr. Banks noted, had a tumor in her head that had grown to the point that her entire face was distorted, her nose large and her eye bulging. She hadn’t been able to see a physician prior to visiting the clinic that day. Dr. Banks’ team helped diagnose her, then made arrangements to help her travel to a larger city to get more advanced care.

During medical school and residency, Dr. Banks completed more medical mission trips in Bolivia and Kenya. And this summer, he plans to move with his family to Burundi, a small country in East Africa, for a five-year volunteer appointment at a rural hospital.

“Burundi has only three physicians for every 100,000 patients,” he says, noting that Springfield, Missouri, his current hometown, has about 500 physicians per 100,000 patients. “I hope to teach and mentor the medical students there, who will go out and really be the best physicians to meet the needs of their people.”

The DO volunteer spirit

For National Osteopathic Medicine Week (April 19-25), The DO is examining the volunteer spirit of osteopathic physicians like Dr. Banks. Volunteerism is heavily enmeshed in osteopathic culture; the AOA Code of Ethics even encourages DOs to devote time to community service.

Whether they donate time at home or abroad, many DOs volunteer because, like Dr. Banks, they want to remove barriers that prevent people from accessing treatment. In Chicago, Maria I. Brown, DO, founded Pilsen Homeless Health Services, a free clinic on the city’s West side, because she knew the city’s homeless population experienced great difficulty accessing primary care. Without insurance, money or transit options, many homeless patients felt unwelcome in conventional doctor’s offices.

“We took away the barrier of transportation and the barrier of going somewhere where you don’t feel culturally welcomed,” says Dr. Brown, who is also an associate professor of family medicine at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “Not many private offices are really excited about random street guys wandering in. They are welcomed here, they are embraced.”

Dr. Brown on the power of volunteer work.

Dr. Brown says she relishes her time at Pilsen Homeless Health Services because the need is so great.

“I love my private practice, but if I wasn’t there, there are 25,000 doctors in Illinois who could easily fill my shoes,” she says. “At Pilsen Homeless Health Services, the patients are so grateful that you are talking to them. They are so grateful when you have some medication that you can give them so they can make it through to whenever their next appointment is and help them navigate the system so they can get benefits or Affordable Care Act insurance.”

Dr. Brown also likes to show patients they are valued and that seeking health care doesn’t have to be a difficult, embarrassing process.

“I always say homeless people are not stupid or insensitive,” she says. “They’re poor. They know they are being recoiled from when people cross the street or won’t look them in the eye. They expect middle-class people to treat them badly. But all you have to do is be a decent human being, and people blossom like flowers in the sun.”

Promoting service-oriented values

Other DOs serve because they want to encourage the next generation of osteopathic physicians to adopt the DO volunteer spirit.

J. Wesley Cook, DO, who volunteers at CommunityHealth Chicago, a free clinic on the city’s West side, says the culture at the Midwestern University/Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine in Downers Grove, Illinois, his alma mater, inspired him to adopt service as one of his core values as a physician. Now a clinical assistant professor at the school, Dr. Cook supervises medical students each month at the free clinic.

“I want to model for the students that after they finish their residencies, they should continue to donate their time to serving people who are less fortunate than most,” he says, noting that over the years he has kept in touch with his students and learned that many of them continued treating patients on a volunteer basis after finishing their schooling.

Dr. Cook on instilling the value of service in the next generation.

“It’s very rewarding to know that you play some role in introducing that concept to future physicians so that they also will provide uncompensated care and service to less fortunate patients,” he says.

The Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine-Virginia Campus in Blacksburg (VCOM-Virginia Campus) was founded in 2001 with the mission of training physicians to meet the needs of rural and underserved patients. The school requires all third-year osteopathic medical students to complete a rotation in rural or underserved health care; students choose from rotation sites in Appalachia or permanent clinics in the Dominican Republic, Honduras and El Salvador.

“This rotation requirement stems from our mission to recruit from, train in and hopefully return physicians to rural and underserved areas, particularly in Appalachia,” says Jan Willcox, DO, the dean of VCOM-Virginia Campus. “We feel that by having this mission component, we attract a certain type of student.”

The evaluations for these rotations are often positive, Dr. Willcox says, and students also frequently return to their third-year rotation sites during their fourth-year elective rotations.

Roughly half of osteopathic medical schools offer students an organized international rotation, according to the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine and the AOA’s Bureau of International Osteopathic Medicine.

Interest grows

Medical students have become more interested in international service in the last decade. “With globalization, the world has become a lot smaller, and the needs of the world are becoming better known,” Dr Banks says. “Medical students and young physicians are saying, ‘I have this resource, I can do something with it.’ I’ve seen that desire increase over the years.”

Joseph H. Kidd, OMS II, works with a patient on a 2014 mission trip in the Dominican Republic organized by VCOM-Virginia Campus.

Dr. Willcox agrees, noting that VCOM-Virginia Campus also offers second-year students the option to complete a one-week medical mission at one of its three international clinics.

“Each year, we see an increase in our applications for our second-year one-week experiences as well as the third-year international rotations,” she says. “Last year alone, we had a 50% increase in our applications for the second-year one-week missions for the class of 2017.”

DOs and students interested in international service can apply to travel with DOCARE International, which organizes osteopathically-focused medical outreach trips to underserved areas in many countries, including Vietnam, Guatemala and Malawi. Elevated interest over the past five years has led DOCARE to increase its number of annual missions from 12 in 2010 to nearly 20 this year, says its executive director, Mike Mallie.

Students and DOs can also apply for humanitarian grants from the American Osteopathic Foundation to travel to medical missions. The AOF also provides Ready Relief Boxes containing medications and other equipment for physicians embarking on medical missions.

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