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Long-term relationships: one lasting impact of short-term work


by Lawrence Loh, MD MPH

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‚ÄčA great new article by Ouma and Dimaras out of the University of Toronto aligns with our organizations interest in improving the outcomes of short-term medical experiences. Specifically, when discussing educational endeavors, the authors state that a mutual benefit approach needs to be identified at the outset. As weve described for a long time at The 53rd Week, the issue with short-term experiences abroad is not that they exist, but rather, they exist in ways that heavily benefit the volunteers and the institutions while offering limited benefits to the receiving institutions and communities, and on occasion (or more often than not) causing harm.

Ouma and Dimaras identify three tenets that could promote sustainable student experience outcomes: using an unstructured approach, encouraging participatory observation and critical engagement, and measuring impacts by the journey, not the destination. Of these, the last one describes how relationships between trainees and local professionals can go on long after the initial participation.

This is part of what our organization tries to advocate, that voluntourism and short-term experiences are not all bad news. Done properly, they can foster real, genuine human-to-human interactions and contact. Relationships are often forged on flesh and blood, face to face experiences, something that a faceless donor sending money to support local work doesnt necessarily foster. This is one of a few potential benefits that getting short term right can possibly lead to - diplomacy, flattening the world, and allowing ideas, knowledge, and innovations to flow in both directions. 

There are lots of benefits for the communities abroad that we should identify and nurture through appropriately conducted short-term volunteer efforts abroad. As a treatise as to how to do short-term global health educational experiences right, Ouma and Dimaras paper is a great addition to this nascent field. Check it out here.

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Lawrence Loh, MD, MPH is Director of Operations at The 53rd Week


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