Who, me? With all the excitement and preparations surrounding your upcoming trip, it’s all too easy to skim over information regarding volunteer ethics and professionalism. Most volunteers, after all, are uncommonly conscientious, highly motivated, service-oriented individuals, and certainly don’t consider themselves prone to or even capable of unprofessional behavior. And yet, unprofessional behavior is a problem amongst international volunteers; indeed, it is one of the most widespread and consequential problems. Some cases of unprofessionalism are extreme (e.g. discovering the program isn’t what you expected, and leaving early), but most are unintentional, subtle, and seemingly benign (e.g. throwing on your scuffed sneakers and wrinkled button-down shirt thinking nobody will notice). Examples of unprofessional behavior that are particularly pertinent to international volunteering include showing up late or not at all; leaving early; inappropriate dress attire; violation of cultural norms; being overly demanding; laziness; negligence; unreliability; a condescending, disrespectful, or arrogant attitude; and noncompliance with direction. Vignettes of unprofessional incidents in the colored boxes in subsequent modules illustrate just how easy it is to unconsciously exhibit offensive, unprofessional behavior. No volunteer is immune to unprofessionalism. Luckily, with proper preparation and vigilance, all volunteers are also capable of ethical, professional conduct.
The developing world: a microscope with a long memory. It is tough to imagine how a wrinkled shirt, or even a missed day of work could have a lasting, damaging impact on physician-patient and host-volunteer relations. Because your presence is relatively brief and transient, you may think that the impact of your work is fleeting as well. While volunteering abroad will likely be one of many profound and enlightening experiences for you, your presence is an impactful and rare event for those you are visiting. All of your actions, good and bad, will be scrutinized, and their effects will be magnified and remembered long after you leave.
“People in developing nations, including healthcare professionals and students, are much less mobile and more isolated than those in developed nations, for whom global travel, the internet, up-to-date information and advanced communication technology are daily realities. The isolation is especially intense in remote, rural areas. So your presence, attitudes and acts may continue to be remembered and remarked upon in your host country, for better or for worse, long after you leave, whereas in your home country, the same incident might have been quickly brushed aside.”(1)
The saliency of your actions as a volunteer is certain, so it is important to consider how you and your work will be remembered. Unprofessional behavior will not only be magnified and enduring, but its effects far-reaching. In addition to representing yourself, you represent the trip organizer, all future volunteers, the Western world, and the health care profession as a whole. Any unprofessional conduct would thus reflect poorly on the developed world, reinforcing stereotypes of arrogance and opportunism, and would damage the reputation of the sending organization. More importantly, it would reflect poorly on the health care profession, which would harm local health care initiatives by damaging the crucial trust between physicians and patients that is so integral to health care across cultures and settings. All volunteers should realize that volunteering overseas is a privilege, and that it must be approached with the same level of professionalism as a job.
(1) “Professionalism 101.” Child Family Health International (CHFI). Accessed on 14 November 2008.