How volunteering has made doctors, students happier and healthier
Whether you’re an experienced physician or new to the profession, caring for patients at volunteer clinics can revive your passion for practice and offer a mental break from some of the daily stressors that lead to physician burnout, according to members of the medical profession who regularly volunteer.
Grant Turner, a fourth-year student, and his patient, Maria Neri, who he treated for more than a year at the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Sharing Clinics.
Louis Weinstein, MD, a retired OB-GYN physician who worked in academic medicine and volunteer physician at Barrier Islands Free Medical Clinic in Charleston, South Carolina, and Grant Turner, a fourth-year student at University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) who volunteers at the University of Nebraska’s Sharing Clinic program (pictured right), spoke with AMA Wire about their experiences volunteering at free clinics. Here’s why they encourage their peers in the profession to give back by doing what they do best—improving patients’ lives.
What do you enjoy most about volunteering?
Dr. Weinstein: Since the clinic operates on grants and government financing, I don’t have to work under the same time constraints as most physicians in private practice. I don’t have to see a patient every 15 minutes. There are no economics involved, and that’s what makes this so much fun.
I can spend time with my patients. Anything I do for them is because I genuinely want to do it. If a patient needs a biopsy, I schedule it for 40 minutes, or I take an additional 10 minutes talking to them about smoking cessation rates. The return I get on volunteering is [tremendous] because when I go home, I know I’ve done everything possible to potentially make a difference in someone’s life.
If spending extra time talking to my patients can prevent one stroke, one heart attack or break the cycle of poverty for one person, than I’ve done more than enough. It was more than worth it to me.
Turner: At our school clinics, medical students have the option to work as “continuity providers,” which means we work with one patient on a long-term basis. I’ve worked with one of my patients, Maria, for roughly two years, and I’m very proud of the progress we’ve made with getting her diabetes under control.
Working here has also exposed me to two really important sides of medicine: As a volunteer, I’ve learned how to walk in the shoes of my patients and really understand the cultural and lifestyle factors that may contribute to health disparities for many people. Yet on the clinical side, I’ve learned all about the busy operations of how to run a clinic, paperwork, team building with your care staff—all that. I know this will help me in my career and future residency program, which I also chose based on the fact that they have a free clinic, where I plan to continue volunteering.
What are the biggest challenges of volunteering?
Dr. Weinstein: The hardest part is knowing how to help a patient but being unable to because of limited resources.
There was one woman I saw who definitely showed early signs of malignancies on her cervix, and she needed surgery, which isn’t a service we offer at the clinic. I called around asking other hospitals if they could help, but I couldn’t find anyone to take her because she is undocumented. It breaks my heart that I can’t do the surgery because I know that in about 10-20 years, this woman will develop cervical cancer, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
Turner: Just seeing all the life challenges and barriers patients struggle with can be overwhelming.
There are so many social and cultural factors—like a lack of fresh produce in your neighborhood, language barriers, low income or family issues—that impact a patient’s health. This can be very challenging to see when you want to help.
Even Maria had legal issues regarding custody of her child that caused her to stress, and her diabetes worsened. Fortunately, I was able to refer her to a free legal clinic at a nearby college, and the help she received minimized her stress, which got her nutrition back on track. But I know most physicians don’t have a chance to help like this.
What’s something that surprised you about your experience?
Dr. Weinstein: Most of my patients live below the poverty [line], which means they can make less than $15,000 to $20,000 a year, yet don’t qualify for Medicaid because of state-specific guidelines. [Our free clinic] is their only way to receive health care, and their gratitude always stuns me.
It may sound surprising, but physicians in private practice can help a patient and never hear, “thank you.” That’s not the case here, though. I’ve even had a patient write me a letter thanking me for my help and the fact that someone would go to those lengths, just to show appreciation for me doing my job. [That] means a lot to me.
Turner: Having the chance to really see more of the whole picture of how underserved patients need so much more than medical care was eye-opening. I’ve done my best to help with some of these issues, like language barriers between patients and physicians.
Since I began volunteering four years ago, I’ve created two modules at the UNMC clinics to help students use translators while treating patients. Still, the work involved with doing this was extensive and taught me that so much about patient care extends beyond the exam room.
How has volunteering helped advance your career? Do you have any tips for your peers who are interested in doing the same?
Dr. Weinstein: I tell people all the time that once you receive your medical degree, you can be a doctor for the rest of your life, but that doesn’t mean you’ll always be a physician. Since I’ve retired, volunteering allows me to maintain my role as a practicing physician.
When I’m in the clinic, my colleagues and I still talk about the latest developments in JAMA and our specialties. This is my way of being a physician for life. To anyone interested in volunteering, especially senior physicians, please maintain an active medical license. Don’t let your license go. Keep it active because if you ever want to care for patients, you always can.
Turner: My volunteer work with Maria was really the main focus of my personal statement for residency program applications, and I received an amazing letter of recommendation from the volunteer clinic director for my personal interview. I know this really helped me in the residency match since I received my No. 1 program choice.
The experience also … expanded my perspective and developed my patient management skills. If you’re a student and you’d like to volunteer, research clinical options at your medical school or attend club fairs early in your first year to learn more about ways you can volunteer on campus.
Where to look for volunteering opportunities: If you are interested in volunteering, but aren’t sure where to start, visit the JAMA Network Career Center, which lists dozens of opportunities for physicians in the United States and abroad.