Saturday, April 18, 2015

Who's Benefitting?

A few weeks ago we were given the amazing opportunity to go to Nicaragua and help set up a clinic to treat people with otherwise very limited access to medical care. We worked in groups of 2 or 3 students with a translator to record patient history and take vital signs. We then presented our findings to the doctors who determined the diagnosis and prescribed medicines. During only a few short days I learned more about common medical issues in the area and about how to take blood pressure and pulse or examine a patient than I ever expected to. This was, by far, the most hands-on experience I've ever had with medicine. It was exhilarating, challenging, and fun. And yet, I'm not sure I'm totally comfortable with it. We are not trained physicians or nurses or even medical students. Most of us had never taken blood pressure before or been taught patient privacy protocols. We had one day of orientation to learn all the things we were expected to do and then we were released into the clinic. We were supervised in the sense that there were doctors present, and the patients were informed that we were only volunteers before we began any exam, but I'm not sure if these measures were sufficient.

The patients were grateful to have the opportunity to go to a clinic, and we were grateful to have the opportunity to view the work of a doctor first-hand. Some could argue it's a win-win situation, but is that what we want? When it comes to treating sick people, is it okay for everyone to benefit a little or should nothing less than patients solely benefitting be acceptable? In the United States there are strict rules about patient privacy and what students can and cannot do, and these rules exist for a good reason—we are untrained.

The patients were treated while we learned. They were given medicine while we were given the opportunity to play doctor for a week. I can only hope that the patients feel that they got something out of this experience, because I know my classmates and I did. If this program is designed to benefit the community and truly needs volunteers to help, then I can only support it. But how much did we really help and how much were we in the way? Were we important or did they just need the money we paid for the trip to support the clinic and allow the doctors to do their jobs? At the end of the day this experience left me with a lot of questions. I loved my experience and I am grateful to have been given such a unique opportunity. But I have to ask: who do these clinics really benefit?

Rachel Krcmar

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