For Ingrid Carter, DO, medical missions are a way to make a positive impact in the lives of those who desperately need it. As an emergency medicine locum tenens, Dr. Carter has served in Uganda, Haiti, Ghana and India, providing care to thousands of patients in medically underserved areas.
The DO spoke with Dr. Carter, based in Davie, Florida, and several medical students from A.T. Still University-Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine (ATSU-KCOM) in Kirksville, Missouri, who have worked alongside Dr. Carter in medical mission programs, which are short-term global health outreach trips not affiliated with a religious organization. They, and other medical students, share advice and what it costs to go on a medical service trip so you know what it will take to finance yours. (Figures listed are based on the averages among those we spoke with and may vary based on itinerary and destination.)
Once you’ve decided on your destination, Dr. Carter recommends registering with Smart Traveler, a free service that allows U.S. citizens traveling or living abroad to enroll with the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. “This service will let you know of the embassy in the area, any uprisings, civil unrest and what to be mindful of within the region.”
$1,200-$5,500: Food and lodging
Eden Elfrink, OMS III, went through Power of a Nickel for a medical mission trip to Uganda where their team saw nearly 200 patients per day. The organization brings together teams of volunteers to provide medical services to those in underserved areas. A flat fee for the 10-day trip—including lodging, food, on-the-ground transportation, security and translators—was $1,200. Volunteers were also responsible for their own airfare. “Power of a Nickel did an excellent job at letting us know exactly what to expect and how much we would be paying for it,” says Elfrink.
Kelsea Sandefur, OMS III, provided medical services in underserved areas of Honduras and Uganda and says that loans helped her to finance her trip, including her $1,300 flight to Uganda. She advises those considering medical missions to prioritize. “There are many ways to live frugally and save money for the things that matter, such as travel and serving others,” says Sandefur. Travel sites like Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity and Priceline offer discount flights depending on time of year, destination and airline.
Before traveling to Uganda, Kathryn Kammert, OMS III, was vaccinated for yellow fever (required for entry) as well as typhoid and hepatitis A. Kammert has served in Peru, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Uganda and says that vaccinations are an important part of the medical mission budget. “Make sure to check the availability of vaccines ahead of time as some have to be special-ordered. Also check the CDC’s page on traveler’s health as some countries require proof of immunization, like in Uganda, while others only suggest it.” Ask your healthcare professional about which vaccines you may need at least six weeks before you travel.
$100-$300: Cash and clothing / incidentals
“When carrying cash with you while traveling, I would recommend that you split it up,” says Elfrink. “That way, if you lose it, misplace it or it gets stolen, you’ll still have some.” He also recommends quick-dry clothes and portable clothes lines. “I was able to wash any clothes and let them dry during the day while I was working.”
$50-$200: Travel visa and passport
Visa rates vary by country, so be sure to check the fees for your destination. Ashley Blanchard, OMS III, has served in Uganda and Nicaragua. The application for the travel visa to Uganda was $50 and required an original passport, valid for six months before travel and six months after the return date. “Print all documents,” Blanchard says, “and make extra copies.” A U.S. passport fee for first-time applicants is $110 for the book, $30 for the card and a $25 execution fee. Passports are generally received 4-6 weeks after application or 2-3 weeks for expedited passports (for an additional $60.)
$80-$150: Travel insurance and medical evacuation insurance
If you currently have auto, homeowners or renters insurance, check with your provider about travel insurance. Sites like LonelyPlanet.com provide a quick estimate based on destination, length of stay and country/state of origin. Coverage options may include emergency accident and sickness, emergency evacuation, baggage and personal effects and 24-hour assistance services, among others. “Regular health insurance may not cover international health costs, and you may have to pay and get reimbursed later,” Dr. Carter says. “With medical evacuation insurance, if you need to be evacuated, that expense is covered.”
$25-$50: Personal medication
A medical mission trip to Vietnam in January 2018 will mark the fifth service project for Dr. Carter. She says that bringing medication for your personal use is essential. “In other countries, medications may have a different name.” They may also not be readily available. In addition to a probiotic for diarrhea illnesses, she brings Tylenol, Motrin, Benadryl, electrolyte replacement tablets and water purification tablets.
Financing your future outreach
Power of a Nickel awards a handful of $500 and $750 scholarships for eligible students for each medical outreach trip. Recipients must present a research article, poster presentation, article for publication, presentation at an accredited venue or a publishable case study within six months of the return date.
DOCARE International, which organizes 15 global outreach trips per year, does not typically offer travel scholarships. Instead, the organization recommends that students contact their university’s DOCARE chapter and global health department and investigate their school’s grant and scholarship resources.
The American Osteopathic Foundation (AOF) provides Hope Grants in the amount of $500 for third- and fourth-year students and pediatric residents planning to travel with DOCARE or other osteopathic medical school missions for global health. The AOF also provides the Rossnick Humanitarian Grant of up to $500 for first-year medical students and up to $2,000 for second- through fourth-year medical students, residents and fellows.
“Global medicine should be accessible to all medical students who are interested,” says Amanda Waller, OMS IV at Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences (KCUMB), who has served in Costa Rica, Haiti and Kenya. She’ll volunteer in Guatemala next year. “Medicine offers the perfect opportunity to travel, learn from other cultures and practice social justice and social medicine around the world.”