Dermatologists' volunteer work holds great value

November 1, 2011

I have always looked for evidence of volunteerism on the applications of every candidate seeking a residency training position in dermatology. I've found that medical students who make the effort to volunteer their time to help someone in need truly make the best residents. They are generally caring, thoughtful individuals who recognize that the special gifts they have been given deserve to be "paid back" to society in some way.

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More often than not, however, I've witnessed the exact opposite in physicians. I personally believe that dermatologists can take great pride in the fact that our specialty was one of the first physician groups to organize widespread volunteer services to aid people of reduced financial means by providing free skin cancer screening clinics around the country.

These efforts have undoubtedly saved countless numbers of lives and have reduced the disfigurement, scarring and risk of disseminated disease by diagnosing thousands of premalignant and malignant skin conditions earlier in their course.

I have always looked for evidence of volunteerism on the applications of every candidate seeking a residency training position in dermatology. I've found that medical students who make the effort to volunteer their time to help someone in need truly make the best residents. They are generally caring, thoughtful individuals who recognize that the special gifts they have been given deserve to be "paid back" to society in some way.

Most remarkable to me are the medical students who have demonstrated a desire to volunteer in childhood or adolescence. Those are the kinds of people I want to mentor and help become dermatologists.

I was so delighted to read in a recent issue of Dermatology World about "Dermatology in Action." This group, which I must reluctantly admit I have no connection with (yet!), was organized to allow dermatologists to volunteer their services outside the realm of their normal physician duties.

Approximately 100 dermatologists volunteered at the group's inaugural event in New Orleans, the site of the 2011 American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) annual meeting, to provide hands-on physical labor in an effort to correct some of the lingering devastation remaining from Hurricane Katrina.

While I admittedly didn't learn of this activity until after it had passed, I am writing this editorial so that others are made aware of the next "Dermatology in Action" event. This event will be held prior to the start of the 2012 AAD meeting in San Diego, on March 15. Hands-on activities similar to those in New Orleans will be performed by volunteers to help the community. If you'd like to volunteer, contact Marlene Banike at the AAD. If you're unable to physically participate, monetary contributions can be made.

So, in summary, what is the value of being a dermatologist volunteer? For me, it's a great feeling that I'm giving something back to the community, a feeling that I'm not that greedy, uncaring, selfish physician portrayed on TV, but rather someone who is attempting to reach out and help do something that is important, meaningful and good on a very basic level. Trust me - it's a pretty great feeling indeed.

Ronald G. Wheeland, M.D., is chief of dermatologic surgery, Department of Dermatology, University of Missouri, Columbia, Mo.