by Will Rogers
We have been focusing on encouraging our missionaries here on the blog, and today, we want to discuss why this is so extremely important.
Over the last several decades, healthcare missions has experienced a steady stream of missionaries both entering the field and exiting the field (for retirement, job changes, etc.). This has created a net zero effect, a rate that has been mostly sustainable for those that are actively working in mission fields around the globe. But don’t get me wrong - medical missions has never been easy. The challenges of being on the field are a never-ending list of needs that outweigh resources available. And that includes the human resources. Nurses, doctors, physical therapists, surgeons…you name the specialty, and they are all desperately needed in cities and villages and towns and countries spread across God’s earth.
So what happens when a global pandemic shuts the world down for more than a year, and medical missionaries are left alone on the field? No short-term teams to bring much needed manpower and supplies. No mid-term professionals coming to step in so that a veteran provider can take a much needed week of vacation. Fewer students entering the field because of the uncertainty around the future of international travel, entry restrictions, and overall ambivalence toward the future.
When all of these pieces add up, they create an untenable situation. Veteran missionaries on the field are left without help, without relief. They are overburdened and cannot sustain the workload. They find themselves spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and physically burned out and unable to go on. And as they leave the field, less people are entering the field, creating a spiral effect of what some would say is a 20-25% decrease in overall medical missionaries on the field. Unless we do something to dramatically change this trajectory, it will only get worse as those on the field have less and less human resources to rely upon. They are sticking it out for now, but how long can they really last?
According to MedSend President and CEO Rick Allen, over the last seven years, MedSend, which strategically funds qualified healthcare professionals to serve the physical and spiritual needs of people around the world, has been setting record numbers of applications each year. But those record numbers still equal out to that net zero we talked about earlier – the same number of people entering the field as coming home from the field. But over the past year, instead of the average 45 applications that MedSend typically approves, there were only 18. They have seen significant burnout and trauma on the field in the past 18 months and believe that in situations like these, we need significant interventions to stop the bleed. According to Allen, MedSend “recognized that there were challenges, but this has magnified them.”
So what would help sustain our current workforce of medical missionaries? The obvious answer is more workers. We need more healthcare professionals to go to the mission field and fill the gaps. But maybe the current pipelines just aren’t big enough to stem the tide…Then what?
Some other ideas that leaders in medical missions are thinking through include more opportunities for short term help. And not short term as in 2 weeks, which is just more of a burden on the field staff. But short term as in 3 months, which could be a truly significant asset. Maybe talk with Universities about how to collaborate to get medical students to do one of their rotations at field hospitals in international locations. Another idea is to have a professionals rotation. Workers sign up for two weeks at a time, but they go on a regular rotation so that field staff aren’t constantly taking up all their time training visitors.
Organizations like MedSend also realize that they want to prepare new missionaries more thoroughly before they head to the mission field. So often young missionary doctors and nurses are sent to the field only to be a burden to the veteran workers as they learn language, culture, low resource setting skills, etc. The young, inexperienced professionals get discouraged and end up leaving the field before they’ve ever had a chance to really settle in and find their groove. The responsibility of training these new professionals is a project that Jim Ritchie, with MedSend, is going to try to tackle. Jim served 25 years in the U.S. Navy. He was an emergency medicine residency director and deployed twice to combat support roles in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, he developed an interest in combat medicine ethics and the psychological aspects of trauma relating to physicians working in difficult and under-resourced environments. He knows a little something about the challenges faced by those of you entering into medical missions. Jim is going to lead the Longevity Project, preparing and supporting MedSend Grant Recipients to handle the burdens which are unique to cross-cultural healthcare. He works closely with the mission organizations with whom MedSend partners to support them in their challenging responsibilities.