CHA offers online orientation program for medical mission trips

September 1, 2018

CHA has a new online orientation program for people participating in international health care mission trips. The video modules are designed to enrich the experience by increasing cultural competence and awareness of perceptions on both sides of the host and volunteer relationship.

The online program responds to association members' requests for such information and builds on CHA's research from those who host Catholic health and other groups of volunteers in communities around the world.

"There was a gap between the need for orientation and the materials that were readily available and completely applicable to those traveling on short-term medical mission trips," said Bruce Compton, CHA's senior director of international outreach. Compton has lived in Haiti, hosted volunteer groups there and led U.S.-based volunteer groups to the Caribbean country. He said it is important for medical mission participants to better understand the impact such trips have on those they serve and themselves.

Utilizing resources developed by CHA and other sources, the orientation includes five modules:

  • Understanding the Guiding Principles for Conducting International Health Activities
  • Short-Term Medical Missions: Research-Based Recommendations for Practice
  • Cultural and Logistical Preparation for Your Trip
  • Orientation Specific to the Hospital St. FranÇois de Sales in Port-au-Prince, Haiti
  • Reentering, Remembering and Remaining Rooted

Compton said CHA's main goal is to emphasize that these trips require orientation that reaches far beyond factors like climate, housing and what volunteers will be fed. "Our ministries are forming their members by providing these experiences, and we hope to help in their preparation by providing this orientation.

"Our skills and competence at home can lead us to devise solutions or provide resources for what we determine the needs to be — sometimes even before setting a foot in the host country — rather than looking for insights from those who live in the community we're traveling to serve," said Compton. "By delving into cultural competence and reviewing CHA research that shares feedback from those who are hosts of sponsored medical mission trips in low- and middle-income countries, there is a lot that can be learned about how one might want to enter into a new community."

Online Orientation
CHA's new online orientation program for international health care mission trips promotes the importance of cultural sensitivity and respect for the dignity of the people receiving care.

The modules include questions for reflection, allowing volunteers to consider their personal motivations for participation and their perceptions of access to health care services in the community they will visit. The orientation also challenges volunteers to consider if and when it's appropriate to take photographs and to post on social media, and what the host community health providers might want most from their guests in terms of education and services.

Broomfield, Colo.-based SCL Health plans to use the orientation resources to decrease the cultural immersion time or culture shock for volunteers upon arrival, and therefore, increase the effectiveness of the time volunteers are in country, said Shelley Michas, a program manager at SCL Health. Michas has led several trips to Tanzania, where SCL Health has a 22-year relationship with Arusha Lutheran Medical Centre. "We are ethically obligated to prepare participants for short-term mission trips and ensure they have a solid understanding of the guidelines and build their cultural awareness," said Michas.

Judith Lasker, author of Hoping to Help: The Promises and Pitfalls of Global Health Volunteering and one of the principal contributors to CHA's short-term medical mission trip research in 2014, shared that her research has shown that host country staff want the volunteers they host to know more about the needs of their country before arriving. They also prefer volunteers who demonstrate cultural humility and respect for their hosts, she said. "Making materials available for volunteers before and after their travel is a great contribution to improving the quality of short-term mission trips," Lasker said.

Charles Evans leads International Health Services Group, a social enterprise he founded in 2007 to support health services development in underserved areas of the world. He said CHA's online orientation for short-term medical mission trips provides the rigor necessary for minimizing harm and maximizing impact. "The challenge is that while we are well-
meaning, too often our short-term medical missions do not achieve these goals. I believe the missing ingredient has been a commitment to rigorous preparation," he said.

Online orientation modules are at


Copyright © 2018 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.

Copyright © 2018 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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