Dermatologists say benefits of volunteering abroad outweigh drawbacks

August 1, 2010

Traveling abroad on medical missions poses inherent challenges. But dermatologists who have made such trips year after year say the positives far outweigh the negatives.

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"Volunteering abroad is an incredibly rewarding experience!" says Wingfield Rehmus, M.D., chairman of the Education and Volunteers Abroad Committee for the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).

Dermatologists have long been among physicians willing to leave their profitable practices for days and weeks at a time to volunteer in remote places, serving the less fortunate.

"Members of the (AAD) volunteer across the globe treating patients with skin problems and teaching the local providers how to better care for their patients' skin," Dr. Rehmus says.

Whatever the dermatologist's aim, veteran volunteers say there are things that U.S. doctors who work in the developing world need to know.

For Carrie Kovarik, M.D., assistant professor, department of dermatology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, volunteering abroad has been part of the fabric of her career. She started traveling on mission trips during medical school.

From 1997 to 2001, while in medical school, Dr. Kovarik journeyed to Honduras (twice), Panama, Venezuela and Mexico. She soon learned that while there was poverty in Central and South Americas, access to medical care and resources was even more limited in many parts of Africa.

In 2005, Dr. Kovarik set her sights on bridging a gap for specialty care - specifically, dermatology in Africa.

"With the HIV prevalence in Africa, the amount of skin disease was unbelievable; however, many countries had no dermatology expertise," she says. "I began my partnership with the Baylor International Pediatric AIDS initiative, where I became the primary dermatology consultant.

"I traveled to all of their clinic sites, including Uganda, Swaziland, Lesotho, Malawi and Uganda, in order to educate clinicians (in both urban and rural settings), see patients for one-on-one learning, and establish teledermatology access."