How Volunteer Work Can Offer Lessons to Prospective Medical Students

Kathleen Franco, M.D.

If you are a prospective medical school student looking to include upcoming travel plans as a contribution to your volunteer effort, you must make sure your experience is substantial. Although shadowing for a week outside of the country will be interesting, it won't make up for a long-standing volunteer effort at your university or in your hometown.

It is highly likely that you will be asked about your volunteer experiences during your medical school interviews. about the vision of organizations at which you volunteer. In part, these questions are meant to explore the depths of your awareness of the organization's and the activity's impact, and you'll likely be asked about the overall vision and mission of the organizations you selected

[Learn how volunteer work can improve your medical school chances.]

For example, if you went on a medical mission trip, consider what will happen after your group leaves. If you really care about the people you are helping, you should ask about follow up and sustainability.

How will some of these patients get needed medication or other services after your group departs? If you visited another country, think about what you learned about their culture that would help you explain their decision-making or behavior to another student or physician who had not visited that country.

Naturally, students who have not had medical training should not expose patients unnecessarily to attempts at surgery or other care requiring a physician's expertise. Students can, however, help tremendously with promoting health education.

[ Highlight your compassion in your medical school applications.]

The Centers for Disease Control estimated in 2012 that every day , 9,000 children around the world die from illnesses related to poor hygiene. For example, severe diarrhea causes a huge percentage of these deaths , deaths that could be prevented simply by hand washing.

The Clean the World Foundation is one organization that has taken on the task of improving these statistics. I learned of this program at a recent meeting of the American College of Physicians. I was impressed by what this group has already accomplished and by their plans to distribute soap to children in more than 100 countries.

Many of the volunteers at this organization are undergraduate students. And other health education organizations that support projects such as oral hygiene, oral rehydration and sexually transmitted disease prevention are more likely to accept students than they are older people as volunteers.

[Shadow a physician to gain insight into medical school.]

Just as I would urge my senior medical students, I encourage you to reflect on where you've been and where you are going in your education and career. As you near the transition point from one stage of your education to another, consider lifelong learning.

For my current students, a month of radiology or dermatology might be something they would not have time to do as a resident, yet could be a very valuable experience now. For you, it could be something helpful to your future, such as a course on emotional intelligence, conversational Spanish or creative writing.

Whether you are in the classroom or volunteering in a foreign nation, the world is your oyster -- t ake advantage of its amazing opportunities.

Kathleen Franco, M.D., is associate dean of admissions and student affairs at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University. She previously served both as director of residency training and director of medical student training in psychiatry at Cleveland Clinic. She is board-certified in psychiatry, geriatric psychiatry and psychosomatic medicine and attended Medical College of Ohio -- Toledo.