Who benefits from short-term medical missions?

Who benefits from short-term medical missions?

By Katherine C. McNabb

Who benefits from short-term medical mission trips?

This weighed heavily on my mind when I decided to participate in the Guatemala Global Health Experience. I spent two years with the Peace Corps in the Republic of Moldova, and although I felt a profound impact after only a few days, I still question if I left a sustainable impact on them.

How could the Guatemala Global Health Experience make an impact in just one week? Would our impact benefit the people that we encountered, or would it ultimately be detrimental?

In short, we helped. Our partner organization Nursing Heart, Inc. (Asociacion Corazon de Enfermeria), founded by Johns Hopkins School of Nursing alumnus Ron Noecker, uses a unique model for short-term medical missions to Guatemala that sustainably impacts the community while providing a meaningful experience for nursing students from the United States.

Nursing Heart has been working in Guatemala since 2011 and, except for Ron, all of the organization’s employees are from Guatemala. The organization has an understanding of, and connection with Guatemala that reflects effort spent building trust with community leaders and effecting meaningful change over time.

Nursing Heart’s commitment to the community was most evident when we conducted a Demographic and Health Assessment Survey in Pacoxpon. Before we arrived, Nursing Heart defined their partnership and identified the community’s goals with the Pacoxpon Community Health Committee. After arriving, we hiked from house to house in small groups made up of students, community workers, and Nursing Heart staff, and were warmly welcomed by each family, all of whom eagerly responded to our questions. Nursing Heart’s preparation made me feel like we were an asset working towards the community’s long-term goals. This was a first step to a healthier Pacoxpon, not a superficial experience for the nursing students.

In one short week we established trust between Nursing Heart, the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, and the community of Pacoxpon. Future participants of the Guatemala Global Health Experience will build on that trust throughout Nursing Heart’s two-year commitment to the Pacoxpon Community Health Committee, and ultimately serve the broader mission to benefit the 70 families living there.

If you’re considering a short-term medical mission trip, you should know that there are organizations like Nursing Heart, Inc. that create a long-term sustainable impact within the communities they serve. Here are 3 tips to keep in mind:

1. Do your research to make sure you are supporting organizations that have existing, sustainable programs and connections in specific communities
2. Be prepared for hard work (it’s fun, but far from a vacation)
3. Approach your experience with humility and an open mind.


Katie McNabb is currently in her final semester of the MSN (Entry Into Nursing) Program. After serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Republic of Moldova, Katie realized her passion to help others and work with people impacted by HIV, tuberculosis, and substance use disorder locally and globally, and then decided to become a nurse. At the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, Katie has been involved with the SOURCE Community Outreach Program and has served as a Helene Fuld Patient Safety and Quality Fellow and Paul D. Coverdell Fellow. She plans to pursue earn her PhD in Nursing and become an Adult Primary Care Nurse Practitioner to care for patients with HIV.


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