Apparently, I never ran the piece I wrote about medical missions for the spring SOAPM newsletter. D'oh. I was reminded of this when one of the local Ghanians sent me some pics out of the blue this morning. Enjoy.
In March, I participated in a medical mission to Ghana. Although I obviously never treated any patients, I got pretty good at identifying inguinal hernias in teenage boys in addition to the more commonplace matters of maintaining the schedule of surgeries, coordinating with patients, taking photos to help document the trip, and otherwise acting as a jack-of-all-trades. In five days, our group performed over 200 surgeries ranging from fixing the aforementioned hernias to cleft palate and cataract repair.
Even with my limited clinical input, the experience was...amazing? Eye opening? Unforgettable? As facile as the English language is, it lacks the adjectives to describe what I saw, did, and felt. I'm sure there's a word for it in German - something like Bludswetundtearstrang. In short, it was an overwhelming and rewarding experience that I was privileged to contribute to.
Although my work helping pediatric offices is wonderfully rewarding (particularly for SOAPM members!), monkeying around with CPTs and RVUs or negotiating a new payer contract has never affected me the way getting a full van of African orphans–and full van in Africa is a FULL VAN–checked into a hospital after hours, thus avoiding having to send them to sleep on the streets.
No surprise there, really. But in the context of a SOAPM newsletter, I have been asked to ask myself: How does this help my business? Or, for you, can participating in a medical mission really strengthen your practice?
The answer, unequivocally, is yes. And as pediatricians, you know this preternaturally. Only a fool would choose pediatrics as the path to financial glory so that's not why you do it. You're a pediatrician because, among other things, you care for children and relish that daily opportunity to make a difference in their lives. But given that so many of you already sacrifice time and income to help those who can't otherwise afford your care, how can helping a blur of kids you're unlikely to ever see again make any difference at home?
Having experienced a mission, I know the answer, but thought should see if others feel the same. Jill Stoller, MD, whom you should all know, was the medical director for our mission, and my estimation and appreciation for her went from amused tolerance (just kidding!) to profound respect. I asked her directly what benefit she returns to her practice as the result of her trip. She replied succinctly:
The missions have proven to me how incredibly lucky we are to be living in the United States with all the opportunities–medical and otherwise–that we have here. That perspective makes me a better person, and therefore, a better doctor.
How can any of us with children - and you, who help to train their parents - disagree that putting perspective on our day-to-day troubles is beneficial? Sure, there are some indirect, but measurable, benefits to her practice from the work:
The press involved can be a PR bonus for the practice. Our local newspapers have written stories about my mission work and I get lots of compliments and questions from my patients and their parents. Some of my patients have made monetary contributions toward the organization I volunteer with. I also think my medical charity work serves as a good role model for the patients in my practice.
This article makes a good case for Dr. Stoller's point about PR, especially for me, doesn't it? We've now spread her name (again) all over the Interwebs. However, pediatricians, as a matter of course, already do a lot of charity work. How is a medical mission different? As Dr. Stoller points out, refreshing your perspective is like a booster shot to your career. Your first ten minutes working with families who are both desperate and thankful - and with kids who swallow any meds you give them without blinking! - rekindles a fire that you will bring home to your practice. There are clinical and management benefits as well:
I was ultimately responsible for the well-being of all the patients and staff. That's true at home, of course, but not at all in the same way. I also needed to hone my skills related to fluid and post-operative pain management.
As for my perspective, PCC is a small business little different from most of yours. And we have recognized several important benefits to supporting our employees in these endeavors.
First, employees who volunteer, on a mild or grand scale, appreciate their jobs – and their companies - more than those who don't. Having happier, more well-rounded employees, is irrefutably good for business.
Second , volunteer work provides a unique opportunity for real-world experience that you can't get anywhere else. Did I learn things about myself in Africa? I sure did. There's a reason why so many people who participate have a bizarre craving to go back. As an employer, imagine choosing between two identical new employees, except that one is a veteran of several medical missions...no choice, really?
Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, supporting work like OCI's mission to Ghana helps to build a more attractive place to work. Finding and keeping good employees is the number one challenge for every small business. Supporting a cause such as this is a relatively inexpensive way to keep employees and do an incredible amount of good.
I know these things not only from gut instinct – there is plenty of data to back me up. Just 'google' something like “business benefits of employee volunteer” like I did and find the dozens of WWW sites supporting volunteer work. Or just read the half-dozen references that Volunteer Match assembled, with results like “64% of executives surveyed say that corporate citizenship produces a tangible contribution to the company bottom line. Among executives at large companies, 84% see direct bottom-line benefits... - Center for Corporate Citizenship at Boston College and Business Civic Leadership Center, 2005”
While it's not possible for every pediatrician to take the time to participate directly in a medical mission, I would encourage practice owners to support this type of charitable work in one capacity or another. What can you do, given that you can't get on the next plane to Ghana? Dr. Stoller suggested the following important alternatives:
If you know friends or colleagues going on medical missions, offer to help sponsor their trips. Maybe your child’s school or boy/girl scout troop could collect supplies for the mission. Speak to the formula and drug reps and collect samples to send on the mission. You can't believe how every little bit helps!
Ultimately, your participation in a medical mission should be limited primarily by your comfort and ability to travel to the location in question, whether it's Ghana or Newark, NJ (sorry, Newark fans). The return on your investment, whether personal or for your employees, is far greater than the investment itself.
My friend Kwame and his crew at Our Children Africa: