HEC Forum

, Volume 26, Issue 4, pp 285–297 | Cite as

Health Care Voluntourism: Addressing Ethical Concerns of Undergraduate Student Participation in Global Health Volunteer Work

  • Daniel McCall
  • Ana S. IltisEmail author


The popularity and availability of global health experiences has increased, with organizations helping groups plan service trips and companies specializing in “voluntourism,” health care professionals volunteering their services through different organizations, and medical students participating in global health electives. Much has been written about global health experiences in resource poor settings, but the literature focuses primarily on the work of health care professionals and medical students. This paper focuses on undergraduate student involvement in short term medical volunteer work in resource poor countries, a practice that has become popular among pre-health professions students. We argue that the participation of undergraduate students in global health experiences raises many of the ethical concerns associated with voluntourism and global health experiences for medical students. Some of these may be exacerbated by or emerge in unique ways when undergraduates volunteer. Guidelines and curricula for medical student engagement in global health experiences have been developed. Guidelines specific to undergraduate involvement in such trips and pre-departure curricula to prepare students should be developed and such training should be required of volunteers. We propose a framework for such guidelines and curricula, argue that universities should be the primary point of delivery even when universities are not organizing the trips, and recommend that curricula should be developed in light of additional data.


Developing world Global health Resource poor Service trip Students Volunteer Voluntourism 



We wish to acknowledge the generous support of the Richter Scholars Program administered through the URECA Center at Wake Forest University. The scholarship enabled Daniel McCall to travel to Nicaragua in the summer of 2012, where he observed first-hand some of the concerns that arise when undergraduate students participate in health related volunteer work in resource poor settings. We also acknowledge the very helpful comments from two reviewers whose insights helped to improve this paper and Dr. Pat Lord of Wake Forest University, with whom we have had many helpful conversations on this topic.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Bioethics, Health and Society and Department of PhilosophyWake Forest UniversityWinston-SalemUSA
  2. 2.Wake Forest School of MedicineWinston-SalemUSA

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