Post-debate: Volunteering Doctors

From New York Times op-ed columnist’s Nicholas Kristof’s blog:

I regularly get emails from doctors or nurses, or would-be doctors or nurses, who want to volunteer to work in Africa for a few weeks or so. After I wrote about fistula, for example, I was flooded with calls from surgeons who wanted to help.

Unfortunately, that’s not so simple. Hospitals in Africa have frankly had bad experiences with Western doctors coming for brief periods, because training in the U.S. doesn’t help much in remote parts of Africa. How many American physicians have diagnosed leprosy, or river blindness, or even malaria? And how many have worked in clinics without running water or labs? One New York ob/gyn friend of mine says she has never seen a case of eclampsia and not many of pre-eclampsia; eclampsia routinely kills women in maternity wards in Africa.

As for fistula, it’s actually very difficult surgery. One hospital in Africa was delighted to get some first-rate surgeons visiting from the U.S., who performed fistula surgery — and completely botched it. They had no experience, since fistula is almost unknown in the U.S., and made a hash of the patients’ insides. That hospital now doesn’t let Western doctors near its patients.

But what is desperately needed is medical supplies — even gloves, and certainly antibiotics, scalpels and medicines themselves. And in some places, like Darfur, there is such a need, and such a shortage of local medical staff, that doctors and nurses themselves are in demand even for short stints. So it’s possible to arrange, but Westerners should approach with some humility and realize that their experience may not be very relevant in Africa.

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