What makes short-term medical missions worthwhile?

Dr. Telfer Griffith shares his experiences and what he has learned since his first trip in 2019.

By Telfer N. Griffith, MD
Medical Director, Pacific Anesthesia – Olympia

After participating in a short-term medical mission trip this past July, I was encouraged to share some of my experiences with our medical staff. Medical/surgical mission trips can be great opportunities to serve in our given area of expertise, travel, and meet healthcare professionals from other hospitals and other parts of the country. They are also an excellent way to get a fresh perspective on life and medicine by engaging with patients and medical personnel in underserved and underdeveloped areas of the world.

Short-term medical missions are also sometimes criticized because they cannot fix underlying healthcare challenges and don’t necessarily educate or include the local population in solutions. A colleague recommended I watch the TEDx talk by Dr. Nicholas Comninellis discussing controversies in short-term medical missions. Ironically, I did not watch it until after my third trip to rural Guatemala, but I was encouraged that the teams I served with were “doing it right.” Comninellis emphasizes the importance of these trips being effective, ethical, culturally sensitive/aware, and ensuring deep engagement with and empowerment of members of the local population.

The importance of a service mindset was modeled to me by my dad, and once my kids were old enough for me not to feel terrible leaving for a week, I went on a Providence-led trip to Guatemala in 2019 led by then CNO Michelle James. We provided general and GYN surgery care for patients with problems that would not otherwise have been addressed in Guatemala – the national health system just doesn’t have the capacity or reach. It was such a great experience I decided during that trip to make it an annual commitment. COVID had other ideas about that, but I was able to return in 2022 and 2023.

The organization we partner with is based in Houston, TX, but they engage with both their Guatemalan staff, who coordinate the many details of the mission and the staff at the local rural hospital where the surgeries take place. “Village teams” identify patients with surgical problems before our arrival, so on the day we are setting up the operating rooms, all the proposed patients are seen for pre-op evaluation and examination. Some patients travel great distances with limited transportation to be considered for surgery.

Common surgical problems encountered include hernias, chronic cholecystitis, painful soft tissue masses, breast masses, uterine fibroids, pelvic prolapse – all often in degrees of an advanced and untreated nature that sometimes makes the operations more challenging but even more beneficial for the patients. Local hospital staff help prepare patients for surgery, perform instrument sterilization, and aid in the care for patients in the post-operative period. Local internal medicine doctors help with pre-op testing and post-op follow-up. They also facilitate the care and optimization of patients not ready for surgery who may yet be cared for by a future team.

The teams I have traveled with have been outstanding. Everyone is donating their time, paying a trip fee, purchasing their flight, taking time away from family, and happy to be doing so. Fundraising efforts also help offset the other costs of the trip and necessary equipment. We take surgeons, anesthesia providers, nurses for pre-op, intra-op, PACU, and post-op, scrub techs, pharmacists, plus chaplains and leaders. Some teams also have a mobility clinic or “wheelchair clinic” concurrently with the surgical trip so physical and occupational therapists plus volunteers assemble and customize wheelchairs to provide much-needed mobility to disabled patients.

Teams also take a lot of supplies that are primarily donated, sometimes purchased, which are crucial to making the mission successful. This includes nearly all the medications required for the week, specific surgical supplies, basic medical supplies, etc. Getting all these items flown down to Guatemala, through customs, and set up at the hospital is quite the process. But even these somewhat mundane tasks help bring volunteers together and prepare us to serve our patients as a team.

I can’t recommend such a short-term medical mission enough, but I also agree with Dr. Comninellis’ recommendations for what makes a trip most worthwhile and high quality. I’d be happy to discuss this further with anyone from our medical staff or direct you to trip coordinators and organizations I have come to know through the process.