HEC Forum

, Volume 23, Issue 2, pp 79–90 | Cite as

The Context of Ethical Problems in Medical Volunteer Work

  • Anji WallEmail author


Ethical problems are common in clinical medicine, so medical volunteers who practice clinical medicine in developing countries should expect to encounter them just as they would in their practice in the developed world. However, as this article argues, medical volunteers in developing countries should not expect to encounter the same ethical problems as those that dominate Western biomedicine or to address ethical problems in the same way as they do in their practice in developed countries. For example, poor health and advanced disease increase the risks and decrease the potential benefits of some interventions. Consequently, when medical volunteers intervene too readily, without considering the nutritional and general health status of patients, the results can be devastating. Medical volunteers cannot assume that the outcomes of interventions in developing countries will be comparable to the outcomes of the same interventions in developed countries. Rather, they must realistically consider the complex medical conditions of patients when determining whether or not to intervene. Similarly, medical volunteers may face the question of whether to provide a pharmaceutical or perform an intervention that is below the acceptable standard of care versus the alternative of doing nothing. This article critically explores the contextual features of medical volunteer work in developing countries that differentiate it from medical practice in developed countries, arguing that this context contributes to the creation of unique ethical problems and affects the way in which these problems should be analyzed and resolved.


Bioethics Clinical ethics Developing countries Medical missions Medical volunteers 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Saint Louis University School of MedicineSt. LouisUSA

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