Medical trainees want to help in less-resourced countries. But short-term programs can misread local needs, overburden hosts, and send students into situations they're not prepared to handle. Here’s how leaders are ensuring ethical, effective experiences.

It all began innocently enough. A sweet six-year-old took a shine to a medical student who was volunteering in the child’s Ethiopian village. The student was invited to visit the child’s home, and the two soon grew close. Seeing this, the family encouraged the student to consider adoption so the child could escape from a life of poverty. The man declined but certainly wanted to help, and when he got back to the United States, he launched an online campaign to raise funds for the youngster.

But the project hit roadblocks, explains Ruth Berggren, MD, director of the Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UT Health San Antonio), where the student was studying. Other village members couldn’t understand why one child had been singled out for aid. The local organization that handled the financial transfers to the family felt overburdened. And, Berggren notes, the donations undermined the organization’s message that the community could be empowered to care for its own.

“Sometimes, an intended kindness can have unintended consequences,” explains Berggren, who oversees UT Health San Antonio’s global health elective program. “Trainees need to understand that they don’t act in a vacuum when they go to a lower-income country. So many ethical issues can arise.”

Read the entire story at AAMC. Susan Graham, Associate Chair of the Department of Global Health, is quoted.