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Want to Combine Your Passion for Physical Therapy with World Travel? An Introduction to Medical Miss

During my last assignment, I was fortunate to work with a diverse group of incredible therapists. With a staff of 80 therapists, it’s hard not to take away some great treatment techniques and new clinical reasoning skills. During my contract at New York Presbyterian, I worked on the med/surg service in the acute care setting. One of the senior therapists on our service was heavily involved in medical mission trips. As someone who loves to travel internationally, this sparked my interest. I had heard about Mercy Ships at the Travelers’ Conference, however, it seemed to be more nursing-based. Vickey inspired me to learn more about medical mission work as a Physical Therapist and was gracious enough to sit down for an interview with me so the travel community could learn a little bit more about the opportunities we have available to us.

In the interview, Vickey touches on how to get started in medical mission trips, what to look for in an organization, FAQs regarding medical mission trips, preparation for medical mission trips, and further resources to learn more about medical mission trips.

Fact or myth? – Is there a large need for therapists?

  • There is an absolute need for rehab professionals to do this kind of work. Finding an organization that utilizes therapists is the challenge.

  • The World Health Organization Vision 20/20 looks to increase rehabilitation efforts worldwide. There is an increased level of disability compounded by an unmet need for rehabilitation services.

What should you look for in an organization?

  • Should incorporate some aspect of sustainability work

  • What are they doing to maintain the therapeutic benefits in these countries?

  • Get references from the organization and connect with them to help you prepare for the mission

  • Be an advocate for yourself. Don’t be afraid to get involved. Even if an organization doesn’t use physical therapists, you can make the case for why physical therapists would be valuable.

  • If it’s mainly surgical – what type of other therapists have gone on the missions? What support do therapists receive from the organization?

  • Have therapists gone on other missions? What support, if any, will a new therapist receive from the organization if they are the first one or are the one creating the therapy components for the organization?

  • Make sure they are a registered non-profit. Do they offer tax exemption for the mission?

How long are medical mission trips? – Most medical missions range from a week to 12 days. Major organizations plan their missions about a year in advance, while some plan four months in advance.

What qualifications do therapists need in succeed in a medical mission trip?


  • Leadership and management skills

  • Ability to think outside the box

  • Ability to manage and train locals

  • Be resourceful with very little resources (creative)

  • Ability to be an advocate for your profession

  • Know what local policies are. Do the research to sustain the practices in the area.

  • A good generalist (not necessarily a specialist) – could be seeing pediatric patients all the way up to geriatrics

  • Need the ability to treat all types of patient populations – orthopedic, pediatric, amputations, stroke, etc.

Are medical mission trips appropriate for new graduates?

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t black and white. Just as travel therapy isn’t appropriate for all new graduates, it is very fitting for some. The same applies to medical mission trips. For new graduates interesting in participating in medical mission trips, it is important to thoroughly interview the organization. In many medical missions, you could be the only therapist on the trip, or in the region. Therefore, it’s important to ask these key questions:

1) What is the team made up of?

a. Will it be mainly medical professionals such as doctors, nurses, and physicians’ assistants?

b. Will there be a large team of rehabilitation professionals?

2) Have new graduates attended previous missions? What were their experiences?

3) What support will be available to you?

It’s also important to self-reflect on your own abilities and comfort levels? How confident are you in traveling to a new and unfamiliar country? How confident are you in treating a diverse patient population independently?

For current students, many programs have a division where they have an abroad trip which can be a great way to get a foundation of what medical mission work entails. If you are a recent graduate, ask to join the trip.

Preparing for a Medical Mission Trip

1) Do your research!

2) Setting expectations is important!!!!

Many times, the locals in a country have their own expectations on the goal of care when they hear “Americans are coming”. It’s important to set expectations of what you can and cannot do. There can be a false sense of “going to cure someone” because you are an “American therapist”. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Get a list of the type of patients you will be seeing (what diagnoses) What can you provide? What will you be able to help them with?

3) Consider the cultural norms of the region you are visiting

Research cultural norms of the country you are going to. Within that, are there different norms for males vs. female patients? How is pain perceived in the country you are going to? Make sure you understand social norms in the region you are going to.

4) Professional Licensing

Each government and country is different. Most of the time, they just wanted to see U.S. license is active which allows you to practice there.

5) Prepare for Language Barriers

· Apps for translating

· Access to a home exercise program can be helpful

· Video-tape home exercise program so a family member can help when they go home

6) Financial Preparation

· Each trip costs between $1,000-$2,000

· Many organizations allow you to do fundraising (GoFundMe, Crowd Rise, Facebook fundraising).

What about disaster relief?

Disaster relief is another component of travel therapy abroad where you would have to be ready to go within a weeks’ notice. The World Health Organization supports and advocates for Physical Therapists to be part of disaster relief teams.

Skills that are particularly useful with disaster relief efforts are:

· Wound care

· Crutch training

· Splinting

· Orthopedics

Additional Resources for Further Exploration:

  1. HPA – The Catalyst: Health Policy & Administration Section (A Specialty Component of the APTA) Within the catalyst, there is a special interest group called Global Health SIG. You can also follow HPA The Catalyst on LinkedIn.

  2. Global Health Programming at the Combined Sections Meeting

  3. This year, there are SEVEN opportunities to attend talks related to global health

Meet Vickey!

Vickey Patel is a Senior Physical Therapist at New York Presbyterian -Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City. Vickey has been practicing as a Physical Therapist for over 20 years and will be celebrating her 20th anniversary with New York Presbyterian in April! Vickey began going on medical mission trips three years ago. She has been on eight different trips with three organizations Through medical mission trips, she has practiced in South America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Her trips have been for a combination of medical, surgical, and refugee camp trips. Vickey has become passionate about sustainable rehabilitation on a global level and increasing awareness of Physical Therapy as part of disaster relief work. In addition to working at New York Presbyterian Hospital - Weill Cornell, she serves as the Vice President of Communications for International Surgical Health Initiative (ISHI). She hopes to continue to utilize the experience she is gaining from her NYU Executive MPA in Public Leaders to make global rehabilitation more widely known and accepted in medical and surgical NGOs.

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