Written by Joanna Hughes

Many aspiring doctors are interested in gaining experience through volunteering opportunities. US News & World Report says of this trend, “Volunteer work has become a cornerstone of premedical extracurricular activities, exposing aspiring physicians to the socioeconomic and healthcare challenges faced by diverse populations, as well as cultivating clinical skills that are essential to a career in medicine.”

But with so many options out there, how do you know if you’re choosing the right one? Here are five things to consider before accepting a volunteer position.

1. Have you thought widely enough about all the possible opportunities?

International organizations like Doctors Without Borders may be widely known. However, there are many other opportunities to volunteer -- many of them in your city or town. In addition to helping to make a positive impact in your own backyard, local volunteering gigs are also a wonderful way to network and build community connections.

Hospitals are one of the more obvious places in need of volunteers. We’re not just talking about candy stripers, either. A recent US News & World Report article rounded up a list of hospital volunteering options, including spending time with terminally ill patients who don’t have nearby family or friends; providing head coverings for people with hair loss caused by chemotherapy; sewing pillows; cuddling opioid-addicted babies; escorting hospital visitors; handling therapy dogs; providing musical entertainment; helping pediatric patients and their parents; delivering meals; and even volunteer clowning.

Of the impact of these volunteers, Sibley Memorial Hospital director of volunteer services and patient relations says, “The most precious gift that we can give to others is ourselves.”

Local hospices are also in need of volunteers. While this can be emotionally taxing, it’s also vital work. The American Hospice Foundation explains, “Volunteers often get involved with hospice in order to give back to their community and help terminally ill patients and their families during a challenging time. In return, many hospice volunteers discover that their service can lead to a deeply touching and meaningful experience.”

2. Does the opportunity bring you something new?

Growing as a doctor -- and as a person -- means stepping outside of your comfort zone. The takeaway? The broader your range of experiences, the more prepared you will be for the varied and complex challenges you’ll face as a healthcare professional.

“Success in medical school is partially reliant on adaptability, and demonstrating willingness to work within novel environments may evidence your ability to accommodate change. As you consider a potential volunteer position, examine how this position differs from ones you have held previously. What new population will you encounter? Will you be working in a new environment like a street clinic or homeless shelter?” US News & World Report suggests.

A diverse range of volunteering experiences also boosts your resume in several ways -- both in terms of the additional skills you will acquire as well as the broader perspective you will walk away with.

3. What is the reputation of the volunteer program you’re interested in?

All volunteer programs aren’t created equal. Don’t just choose the first one that comes along; instead, investigate several options, including practicing due diligence before agreeing to a position. “The first action to take is simple: do your research on the organization you’re applying to. Research their mission, work, and culture. If you can, ask former volunteers about the most essential requirements and needed traits for the role,” VolunteerMatch recommends.

An interview adds another layer of assurance, according to author Barbara Bradley Hagerty. In a Forbes piece on finding the ideal place to volunteer, she advises, “Look for places that let you interview before committing. A conversation with a nonprofit leader can give you a sense of the group’s agenda and needs so you can see if you think it’s a good fit. Conversely, the talk lets the group decide if it thinks you’ll be right for them.”

According to nonprofit director Betsy Werley, meanwhile, this may involve some trial and error. “Each nonprofit has its own culture, and might not work out the first time. Treat it as a learning experience, and you will find out what you like and don’t like. If you are new to volunteering, look at is as dating. You’re not getting married to the organization,” Werley insists.

4. Will you feel valued?

Having your efforts recognized can be sustaining -- both in terms of continuing your volunteering activities and as a general motivation. Healthcare volunteer Rosie Hales writes, “Not only is there a lot to learn from being in a hospital setting, but you really make an impact. Patients appreciate the volunteers at the hospital because we are trained to be courteous, helpful and to go out of our way to make their visit to the hospital as comfortable as possible. In return, the patients make us feel very valued.”

5. Will you be able to document it?

We’re all familiar with the philosophical thought experiment that ponders, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”  Of course, there are many reasons to volunteer which extend far beyond adding a new line item to your resume. (See the final paragraph for more on that.) However, when it comes to using your volunteering experiences to improve your prospects of getting into medical school or landing the best residency, the ability to document your experience is everything.

“If you intend to list your new position on your medical school application, ensure you are able to provide the details necessary to complete your application. Ask who will supervise you at the volunteer site and whether that person is willing to be contacted about your participation. Ask how many hours volunteers devote per week, as well as the average duration of time they stay at the organization,” US News & World Report counsels.

One last thing to keep in mind about volunteering -- both during your physician training and after? The benefits of doing so aren’t limited to the people and organizations you help; you also stand to gain in a multitude of ways. According to MDLinx, volunteering has the potential to counteract the effects of stress, anger, and anxiety; combat depression; increase self-confidence; provide a sense of purpose; protect against cognitive and physical decline; connect you to others; advance your career; and bring fun and fulfillment. Providing support to others has even been linked with reduced mortality!

So what are you waiting for? Use these five questions to find a volunteering position that lets you share your gifts, talents and enthusiasm -- while getting back plenty of good stuff, in return.

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.
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