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Do No Harm, Take No Trips

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Global Medical Training (GMT) and Medicine, Education, and Development for Low Income Families Everywhere (MEDLIFE) are groups at McGill that allow students interested in medical careers to travel to what GMT calls “poor” areas and provide them with healthcare services. GMT representatives spoke in several undergraduate science lectures in September, with one claiming that the trip was a “life-changing experience” that made them realize how lucky they were to live in Canada.

Both NGOs have trips taking place during winter break, with more planned for next semester.  On November 14, GMT held a vitals workshop, conducted by practicing nurses, to train participants in basic first-aid techniques, among other clinical skills. While undeniably useful for a student pursuing a career in healthcare, these workshops do not certify participants to practice medicine in Canada. Despite this, the only further requirement before participants interact with patients abroad is a  fee paid to the organization in question. Rather than requiring the typical four years of pre-med studies, the four additional years of medical school, and the residency which is needed to practice medicine, GMT instead sells its trips on the idea that “students will be exposed to a medical environment where they will be allowed to observe AND actively participate in the medical assessments / treatments of patients who have scarce economic resources, poor access to healthcare, and have to live within various primitive types of Public Healthcare systems.” The use of the word “primitive” in this quote, taken directly from the organization’s website, exhibits the racist and classist framework that is central to these trips. The $1,250 USD fee that students pay to go on these trips would be more beneficial if donated to community organizations.   

GMT and MEDLIFE are both prime examples of “voluntourism:” a phenomenon where people use the excuse of providing services to inhabitants in order to travel to other countries. In reality, these trips are thinly-veiled neocolonial projects that further a white saviour mentality.

GMT, in particular, plays into these ideologies, stating that one of its “prime corollar[ies]” is to offer “healthcare students, professionals, and interested others a truly international experience that will expand their understanding of medicine, dentistry, and life outside of North America.” The organization also claims to  “provide […] free Medical and Dental healthcare services, and free medicines to the needy in Latin America” as another of the three main goals. The vocabulary in this, an official statement, reveals much about the position of the organization. Referring to certain people as “the needy” is othering, paternalistic, and condescending, while the entire phrase presents an image of gracious, benevolent (and implied professional) participants stepping in to alleviate these problems. GMT posits that future healthcare professionals will “best maximize their potential by globalizing the vision they have of their careers and lives. This means that they must expose themselves to other ways of living, and providing health care in contrast to that in their own societies. It is ideal to do this within the intimate milieu of other cultures.” In this statement, other countries, cultures, and lives are framed as tools: areas which North American students visit only for their own personal and career gain.

 Going to another country – described only as “poor” and in need of saving – for a finite period of time will neither help the people in that country, nor produce better healthcare professionals. The students attending these trips are allowed to interact with patients in capacities that would require years of training to perform in North America. Organizations like GMT and MEDLIFE promote the idea that people with limited access to healthcare should take what they can get, even if that means being “treated” by an underqualified 18-year-old looking to boost their resume. In some cases, those unqualified volunteers are actually pushing trained medical professionals out of their jobs. 

These types of programs are predicated on the idea that “poor” countries do not have existing healthcare systems or professionals in the community who are combating medical inequality. The fleeting nature of these projects means that participants are not learning from the community, but rather imposing their methods on their “patients.” There are no long-term benefits for these communities.  MEDLIFE claims to be addressing this by offering more long-term care in the areas to which it sends students, and their website acknowledges the fact that many other such NGOs offer trip-based care rather than establishing healthcare options that can benefit communities in lasting ways. MEDLIFE also claims to teach participants about the causes of health inequality, but neither organization engages with how Western imperialism creates the issues they claim to address.

Any student using this opportunity to “expand their worldview” is participating in and contributing to a system that positions certain countries, regions, and individuals as beneath others, to the extent that even untrained young adults are trusted with critical interpersonal care. It is especially abhorrent that these groups target first-year lectures, preying on new  students who are more likely to believe that this opportunity is critical for a successful medical school application.

Withholding donations, educating others on the nature of these groups, and avoiding their trips is critical. We must boycott GMT and MEDLIFE, and any other organizations which perpetuate white saviour narratives through voluntourism. Students hoping to make a difference should look to their own communities first by supporting organizations such as Head and Hands and the Open Door Shelter, who do important work in providing health services to the Montreal community.