Providence determined to grow ranks of its international volunteers

October 15, 2011


When U.S. clinicians travel overseas on medical mission trips, their out-of-pocket expenses — trip fees, international airfare and the cost of purchasing and transporting some of the medical supplies and equipment they bring with them — add up very quickly.

To lower this potential economic barrier for would-be medical volunteers, Providence Health International, an outreach arm of Renton, Wash.-based Providence Health & Services, offers mission trip grants to the system's employees. It also works to bring new recruits into the ranks of Providence's international volunteers based in part on the belief that the professional and spiritual enrichment of the experience enriches Providence too.

Providence Health International has offered employees financial support for medical missions since its inception over two decades ago, but the aid program has become more formal over time.

Now called the Service Learning Grant program, it gives an average of $700 per employee; grant amounts vary in part by trip duration. Employee interest in medical missions has grown steadily over the years, and Providence now awards about $90,000 annually in participation grants.

Before 2004, Providence averaged about 15 grants per year for 15 years. Since 2004, it has given more than 500 grants. Already this year, it has awarded nearly 130 grants.

Mark Koenig, system director of Providence Health International, said Providence is intentional about ensuring the grant program's effectiveness and about promoting employees' altruism.

Providence does not coordinate its employees' travel; rather it supports trips they arrange through other nonprofit organizations. Before awarding each grant, Providence asks participants questions about what their role will be in the mission, what expectations they have and what they hope to get out of the mission trip.

Within a month of employees' return from their missions, Providence requires them to submit a written report on their experiences. Providence also encourages its missionaries to engage in a type of grassroots marketing, by making presentations to colleagues about their trips. The presentations can be as formal or informal as the employees like. Some Providence hospitals display poster board presentations by the medical volunteers during Providence's "Mission Week."

"We're trying to create a ripple effect, so that our medical volunteers share their experiences with others and everyone here becomes more aware of the value of this type of service," Koenig said. "This creates an environment in which employees can see Providence is living out its mission, and they can identify with that mission."

"This is a leading practice," Bruce Compton, CHA's senior director of international outreach, said of Providence's success in using medical volunteerism to form employees and encouraging those same employees to interest others in enlisting as volunteers.

In 2010, Koenig worked with Providence employee Colleen Gadbois to analyze survey responses of employees who had participated in more than 300 grant-funded mission trips between 2004 and 2009. Koenig said he wanted to understand trends in volunteering, to identify best practices for medical mission programs and to grasp the ongoing impact of the experience in the employees' day-to-day work. Among the best practices Providence notes: It is beneficial to encourage employees to travel as teams, since employees are more comfortable going with people they know, and they can better process their experience as a group upon their return home.

More than three-fourths of survey respondents said the experiences as medical volunteers improve their cultural competence and sensitivity as caregivers. The same percentage said it strengthens their commitment to Providence's mission of providing care to all who need it. The majority of respondents said medical mission work informs their approach to clinical practice. For example, Koenig said, one pharmacist asked patients in Guatemala to repeat back their understanding of their medication instructions; he decided to replicate the practice with patients back home. In the survey, half the respondents said mission work has made them more conscientious about not wasting medical products.

Data and survey highlights

Analysis of data collected since 2004 and of a survey covering the same time period found:

  • More than half of the medical mission trips are to two countries — Haiti and Guatemala
  • Nearly 40 percent of the trips are connected with four specific medical mission organizations — Faith in Practice, Healing Hands for Haiti, Healing Hearts Northwest and Medical Teams International
  • One-third of volunteers are repeat medical volunteers
  • For nearly half, the availability of grant dollars made the difference in their decision to volunteer

Grant conditions

To be eligible to receive a Service Learning Grant, applicants must:

  • Be a half- or full-time employee of Providence
  • Have supervisor approval
  • Use the funds for a trip focused on medical aid, not proselytizing
  • Make the trip with at least one other Providence employee
  • Participate through a nonprofit organization that partners in its work with host-country clinicians

Teamwork in Rwanda

Abbie Oscarson, seen at far left on a medical mission, is a surgical technician at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, Wash. She's used Providence grants for two of the four medical missions she's taken to Africa. Most recently, she served as a surgical nurse for a small team of Northwest U.S. clinicians — many of them from Providence — that traveled to Rwanda in April to perform heart surgeries.

Oscarson said working in rudimentary operating rooms with unreliable electricity and limited supplies helped her to appreciate resources U.S. clinicians take for granted; but, most especially, it made her appreciate the skills of her colleagues.

"These were life and death procedures; and you are tired, stressed and working in a foreign environment. You need to know everyone gels, works as a team and — most important — that they have your back," she said.

Energizing caregivers

Dr. Devin Sawyer, program director of the Providence St. Peter Hospital Family Medicine Residency Program in Olympia, Wash., used a Providence grant for one of the four medical missions he's taken to Haiti. On the trips he provides primary medical care to people who live more than an hour away from medical services and who are too poor to afford that care anyway.

"You can get burned out with the daily grind" in your everyday work in the states, Sawyer said. "This resets my barometer and lets me refocus on why I'm in this profession and what I can offer the people I care for."

Resources well spent

Nurse Manager Jane Wilson, seen here with a former Guatemalan patient, works for Providence Portland Medical Center in Portland, Ore. She has traveled to Guatemala seven times with colleagues, often using Providence grant money. She said she values the Providence grant money and the difference it has made for the Guatemalans.

She's seen patients restored to health after incapacitating illness. Some become volunteers who help their family and neighbors get care from the medical volunteers. "It's about how we help this poverty-stricken country and empower Guatemalans to take back their lives," Wilson said.


Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.