Best Practices When Working in Public Health Abroad

Volunteering and working abroad can be rewarding, and if you’re a public health professional nothing feels better than being able to use your skills to help someone else. While helping overseas may be fulfilling, it is best to do so responsibly, avoiding doing more harm than good.

Ten best practices for doing public health work overseas:

1. Assess the Need(s) – Don’t Assume

One of the biggest mistakes that someone working overseas can do is going to another country and assuming that they know what is best for the people they are serving. Never assume that you know what someone else’s needs are before assessing the situation. Speak with the people you are serving to find out how you can help.

2. Use Available Resources

Learn what resources are readily available in the community you are serving. Instead of bringing in outside resources and talents, find out what skills people you are working with already have. Maybe someone has experience as a community health worker, or maybe there is a local leader who can help you identify community members or local organizations that have skills and resources to help you carry out your project. There could also be someone in the community who would be willing to carry on your work. Sustainability is key.

3. Practice Cultural Competence

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Cultural competence is respecting the language, attitudes, and behaviors of the population you are working with. Get to know the people and the culture as you are serving them. Think about ways that you can effectively execute your work without imposing your own beliefs and ideas on others.

4. Be Patient

You may be used to quickly checking off items on your to-do list but completing tasks overseas may not be as easy providing your resources, and culture and customs. Plan for obstacles, adapt to change, and always have a back-up plan.

5. Set Boundaries & Don’t Cross Any

Be okay with saying no. The last thing that you want to experience is burnout while working abroad. There are a million issues in the world that we as public health professionals want to solve, but we must know our limits. Also, only do what is in the scope of your profession. If you are not a medical professional, or have not received any medical/healthcare training, avoid providing medical care (i.e., delivering babies or administering medication) to the population you are working with.

6. Realize You Aren’t Anyone’s Savior

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You want to change the world and help any and everyone. Nothing is wrong with that. However, the problem comes when the work that you are doing takes away from the people you are serving and their personal agency. It also becomes an issue when people begin relying on outsiders for solutions than considering what skills they have to help their own community.  P.S. Unless otherwise led, you are not obligated to give more than the services you are providing. Yes, you want to help to make a difference, but speak with your supervisor before donating money or in-kind goods.

7. Pass Your Knowledge On

Simply, pass along the skills and knowledge you have to the people you are working with. Don’t just execute an assignment and keep what you know to yourself, educate someone else and be open to being educated.

8. Be Active – Use Your Skills

Use the skills that you have. Do not slack off. Do not procrastinate. Even if you are working in an environment that works at a slower pace than you are used to, put your skills to use. Even if the other volunteers are health workers are taking a day off to go explore, make sure that you have completed the tasks you committed to completing. Stay focused on the purpose.

9. Interact with Your Co-Workers & Other Volunteers

It can be hard opening up to strangers, but what’s worst is isolation and the feeling of loneliness that can occur when you are working abroad. There is no better time to get out of your comfort zone than when you’re in unfamiliar surroundings. Spending time with others can help you cope with what you are feeling. It also gives you the chance to learn about people from different backgrounds other than yours.

10. Hand-Off Your Work Before You Leave

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Lastly, be prepared to hand your work over to someone who can carry it on. What purpose would your work serve if the people you are working with and serving aren’t able to benefit from it in the long run? You can easily leave a notebook, or send an email, with detailed information about the project(s) you’ve worked on, any contacts and relationships you’ve made, and potential next steps. Don’t leave without ensuring that someone is able to finish or execute what you’ve started.


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