Many people in the process of medical training have a desire to help the underserved. Whether you're in medical school and want to do more to help those that need a little extra help, or are a pre-med looking to expand your exposure to medicine while you help the less fortunate, there are opportunities almost everywhere. However, oftentimes there isn't a program set up already that caters to what you would like to do. Fret not! With a little bit of work and determination, you can oftentimes create your own opportunities and programs that can have lasting effects.
Such was the case for me when I set out to complete the practicum portion of my MPH at the end of medical school. Going into ophthalmology, I wanted to do something for the underserved that related to vision, but there were very few local established programs that I could work with. However, after reaching out to a mentor and talking to local programs and agencies to get ideas, I was able to successfully set up and a carry out a project for the undeserved that has shown lasting effects. Here are a few tips on how you too can set up a project, elective, or program to help the underserved when there isn't something officially established already.
Find an area of interest
There are areas of need everywhere. If you really have no clue or starting point, start with your own interests. What kind of medicine are you interested in practicing? Is there a particular location or group of people you'd like to work with? Are there certain problems that you feel particularly passionate about? If you want to do something outside of the area you currently reside, whether internationally or domestically, it is going to require a little extra legwork. Talk to the local agencies and groups that are involved to at least a small degree with what you would like to accomplish; they will often have insights into the local needs. Public health departments, local medical centers and universities, and charitable organizations can all be great resources to contact for ideas of projects and programs that are might be needed.
Find a mentor
One of the most helpful things you can do is find a mentor who has experience doing something similar to what you would like to do. They can guide you along your way and provide help when you are stuck on a problem and don't know how to proceed. They may even be aware of areas of need or possible project ideas that you hadn't even considered. Pick their brain early and often. Also, a good mentor will also be someone who gives you direction and guidance when you need it, but will let you work out the details on your own. Ask them for help while you are planning your project, as they will often be able to provide pearls of wisdom that will help make the process smoother.
Regardless of how amazing and life-changing you think your program or project is going to be, you're going to face unexpected roadblocks, so you should just expect them to come. When I went to local free local clinics to talk to them about being part of my program, I was expecting them all to joyfully hop on board and be a part of what I was doing. I mean, I was helping people and would be helping the clinics too; what could they not like about that? While that was the case with some clinics, there were a few that initially gave me some significant pushback and resistance when I presented what I would like to do. This was supremely frustrating, as having those clinics involved was crucial to the success of my project. This brings me to my next tip which is.....
Be persistent but also flexible
When you meet up against a setback, don't just give up. In my case, it took some discussion, persuasion, and a few concessions, but I eventually got every clinic I approached on board with my program. A lot of times people are just resistant to change or maybe they don't fully understand what you want to do and how it will benefit them. Other times there is bureaucratic red tape that has to be dealt with. If there's an issue that really can't be overcome head-on, be flexible and open to finding different ways of accomplishing what you want to do. Sometimes, you might find that your roadblock eventually leads you to a better or more effective way of doing something.Now go forward with this knowledge and consider starting a service project of your own. If you've worked on one in the past, share your experience with us in the comments!