Module 1: “Unprofessionalism” is a Problem

“Who me?” With all the excitement and preparations surrounding an upcoming trip, it is 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 they certainly don’t consider themselves prone to or even capable of unprofessional behavior. And yet, unprofessional behavior is a problem amongst international volunteers. Some cases of unprofessionalism are extreme (e.g. discovering the program is not what was expected and leaving early), but most are unintentional, subtle, and seemingly benign (e.g. throwing on scuffed sneakers and a wrinkled button-down shirt thinking nobody will notice). Examples of unprofessional behavior that are particularly pertinent to international volunteering include a lack of timeliness, inappropriate dress, violation of cultural norms, laziness, negligence, unreliability, a condescending or disrespectful 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.

It is hard 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 a volunteer’s presence is relatively brief and transient, one may think that the impact of the volunteer’s work is fleeting as well. While volunteering abroad will likely be one of many profound and enlightening experiences for the volunteer, for the host community, the volunteer’s presence may be an impactful and rare event. All of the volunteer’s actions, good and bad, will be scrutinized, and their effects will be magnified and remembered long after the volunteer leaves.

“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 one’s actions as a volunteer is certain, so it is important to consider how volunteers and their work will be remembered. Unprofessional behavior would not only be magnified and enduring, but it would have far-reaching effects. In addition to representing oneself, a volunteer represents 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 Global North, 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.

Module 2: Common Causes of Unprofessional Behavior >>


(1) Let the World CHANGE You | Child Family Health International,