The Importance of Volunteering

Health professional career paths demand rigorous academics and intellect as most other career paths do. A distinct facet of achieving a career in the health professions is the importance of volunteer work and healthcare related experiences. The extra time you set aside to volunteer in extracurriculars is your internship equivalent. There are no standardized processes or requirements that professional schools demand as your experiences will reflect who you are as a person and not just a GPA or entrance exam score. That being said, this article is to help you understand why it is important to volunteer, the types of opportunities to consider, and how to get the most out of your experiences from the perspective of those admitted to professional schools and those still on the journey.

Why Volunteer

Anyone who pursues a career in healthcare can look toward the six fundamental Jesuit values as cornerstones to volunteering:

Magis: Literally translated "more." This is the challenge to strive for excellence.

Women & Men for and with Others: Sharing gifts, pursuing justice, and having concern for the poor and marginalized.

Cura Personalis: "Care for the individual person." Respecting each person as a child of God and all of God's creations.

Unity of Heart, Mind, & Soul: Developing the whole person. Integrating all aspects of our lives.

Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam (AMDG): "For the Greater Glory of God."

Forming & Educating Agents of Change: Teaching behaviors that reflect critical thought and responsible action on moral and ethical issues. [1]

A career in healthcare is not as glamorous as it often is portrayed in the media and goes beyond the classroom, lecture hall, and lab. Volunteering can be the first step into the actual environment healthcare professionals apply their trade and a litmus to test if your career ambitions align with the six values described above.

The allopathic medical school application is processed through the AMCAS primary application portal, and although the osteopathic medical school application is processed through the AACOMAS portal, the principals and processes are similar. The AMCAS primary application allows for 15 activities for you to list which can include employment, extracurriculars, medical exposure, internships, research, and volunteer work. The diversity of various types of volunteer experiences are welcomed, but the AAMC recommends at least one health care related opportunity. [2] Caring to be involved in healthcare related environments makes sense but it is import to stick with an experience long-term. The definition of long-term may be subjective, but the outcome of such an experience can directly impress an admission committee reviewing your application by showing commitment and can also open doors into gaining leadership experiences which are vital toward medical school applications as well. Long-term commitments can also foster relationships with potential letter-of-recommendation writers. Most osteopathic and some allopathic medical schools will require a MD or DO letter of recommendation. Although each experience is different, the longer and more established relationships you foster, the better the letter of recommendation your recommender may write.

Types of Experiences

Hospitals

Volunteering at a hospital can provide a variety of different experiences. Most departments require extra hands with activities ranging from being a receptionist at the front desk, cleaning patient rooms or bays, escorting patients or families from one area of the hospital to another, and aiding in workshops, seminars, and support groups. These types of experiences are excellent because they place you directly at the center of healthcare. Seeing what transpires day to day in your respective department of interest may validate your aspirations and affirm your interests in a specific field because you were able to learn from a close perspective. Also, the density of healthcare professionals may allow you to better acquaint yourself with mentors and possible letter-of-recommendation writers that align with your interests.

Clinics

A clinic is defined as "a facility (as of a hospital) for diagnosis and treatment of outpatients" and "a group practice in which several physicians work cooperatively." [3] This may include doctors offices, outpatient surgery centers, physical therapy centers, immediate care centers and many more. Many of the same volunteering jobs and principles that apply to hospitals also apply to clinics. One advantage over hospitals is the likelihood to work with the same professionals consistently. Location and environment is another advantage. A common question when applying for school admission is "in what type of community do you envision yourself practicing in and why?" The first half of this question is easy to answer, but without specific experiences, it is difficult to validate. Clinics, for the most part, serve particular communities. Whether it is low income, high income, rural, urban, or ethnic, there is no wrong answer. By volunteering at a clinic, you can show that you have done your research on where you want to apply your trade in the future.

Health Awareness and Charitable Organizations

Healthcare is a broad and evolving field. While some interventions are low cost and standard practice, others can be expensive or even unknown. Being involved with a health awareness organization or charity can help show your interest and commitment in a specific facet of healthcare or area of medical research. Volunteer activities in these types of organizations are vast and can include fundraising, teaching, promotion and many others to help aid and grow the organization. Staying committed long-term can open doors to leadership opportunities and can be gateways to potential research opportunities. Vice versa, research labs can partner with parallel oriented health awareness and charitable organizations to raise awareness, funds, or ideas.

Others

The roles of Emergency Medical Technicians, Certified Nursing Assistants, Patient Care Technicians, Pharmacy Technicians, Scribes, Research Assistants, and others cannot be understated. Many colleges, hospitals, and organizations offer schooling to obtain certification and can be great options when on summer break. Even if these roles transition into paid jobs, they are no less valuable. They show your commitment and interest in healthcare. Also, they can convey your sense of responsibility and competency to function under technically high pressured situations.

Health care related experiences are recommended, but there are many organizations designated to promote social justice, religious, charitable, and many other causes. Involvement in these types of experiences can add another dimension to your personal interests and express the issues you aspire to combat as a future professional.

For a list of potential locations and organizations to volunteer for, please visit:  https://www.spappchicago.com/volunteer-opportunities

Making It Count

Professional school applications may require you to list not only the duration of your experiences but also the total number of hours. Journal each to include the day and the total number of hours worked. Also, journal your activities each day and recount meaningful experiences. Meaningful experiences are vital in professional school applications and interviews. For example, the AMCAS will ask you to recount three meaningful experiences, so having a journal that serves as a memory bank will allow you to recount these experiences when needed more efficiently. Include names, and contact information of supervisors in addition to a general contact email or phone number in case your specific contract leaves the organization in the future.

There are a litany of roles when volunteering, but it is essential to find positions where you can interact directly with professionals. Volunteering at a hospital's coffee shop may sound fun but can such work help you gain meaningful experiences while interacting with professionals? Remind yourself that your goal is to get to know the professionals in your organization so that they can speak confidently of you and your talents. It is possible to think that the more experiences you have, the more compelling an applicant you will be and although that can be true, more is not better if it is without substance. Find experiences you will not only commit to but also genuinely enjoy. As much as these experiences are to impress admission committees, they are precursors to your field of interest. As healthcare becomes more and more of a business, we as future professionals can reverse this mindset by applying our talents to selfless causes that start now as volunteers.

SPAPP Examples

Angelika Kwak

Senior at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Majoring in Neuroscience and Minoring in Public Policy; MD/MPH Loyola Stritch School of Medicine in Fall 2019

Volunteer Activities

Polish Interpreter at Community Health; Peer Health Education at UIC Peer Health Exchange; Mobile Clinic Volunteer in Ecuador

Why I choose my activities?

I chose these activities because they allowed me to intertwine my love for my culture, public health, and medicine together.

What have I learned and how has it helped me?

From volunteering at these experiences, I have further solidified my passion for medicine and helping someone feel not only physically, but also mentally better. My experience at Community Health has allowed me to go back to my polish roots and use my polish speaking skills to bridge the language disparity gap. During this experience, I am directly incorporated in the dialogue between the physician and the patient and am able to translate medical conditions, diagnoses, and treatments. This experience has allowed me to integrate my polish heritage into my passion for clinical care and be a vital component in the fight against health inequities in Chicago. Furthermore, as a peer health educator and Medlife clinic volunteer, I was able to discover the health disparities in different parts of Chicago and in a different part of the world, Ecuador. These experiences have taught me different insights from various people and what they are feeling. I learned to form genuine relationships and to empathize with patients. Moreover, I learned the importance of understanding the social determinants of health and how they continuously affect people daily.

All of my volunteering experiences have allowed me to explore healthcare in numerous dimensions. I am not only intrigued by the scientific mechanisms of medicine, but also by the social foundations that are hidden underneath the surface that volunteering has allowed me to see. Through my experiences, I combined my passions for culture and public health into medicine and offer a new and insightful perspective on medicine.

Łukasz Pazdan

Molecular and Cellular Biology B.S, Biotechnology M.S; Pursuing Medicine

Volunteer Activities

Surgical Unit, Immediate Care Clinic (ICC), and Trauma Support Group Volunteer for Advocate

Why I choose my activities?

These activities allow me to observe health care in action and shadow professionals.

What have I learned and how has it helped me?

These activities have allowed me to better understand the medical profession. I first began to comprehend the day to day activities when I first started volunteering at a surgery center. It was in this setting where I first was able to converse with patients, learn how to take vitals, understand the purpose of various medical procedures and even observe them up close. It was in this setting where I discerned my passion for medicine. Currently, at the ICC, I follow up with patients following their visit and am able to better comprehend the most common and pressing health-related issues in my community.

Most of all, volunteering keeps me motivated to achieve my career goals and I find pure enjoyment in my roles. When I first started volunteering at the ICC, I started out as just another volunteer. The doctors and nurses were used to quick turnarounds of volunteers, and my relationship between them started as only professional. In time, the more I returned, the more engaged I would become with the staff. I admire the close dynamic of the health care team so much so that it stops feeling like work. Knowing that my work is welcomed and respected motivates me to see my career ambitions through.

Elizabeth Zborek

D.O. Candidate Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine - Bradenton

Volunteer Activities

Polish Interpreter at Community Health and Volunteer at Amber Coalition

Why I choose my activities?

I wanted to become more involved in the Polish community in Chicago while also gaining exposure to the healthcare field.

What have I learned and how has it helped me?

My experiences have taught me that patients are not just textbook cases. They are people with unique personalities and backgrounds, and physicians must remember to look beyond the diagnosis and into the life of the patient.  Physicians will often see a patient expose all of their raw emotions and truths, and they must be there for the patient to provide them with the best treatment, which may not just be a pill, but therapy with a counselor or assistance from a social worker. A whole team is required to come up with a diagnosis and fully restore a patient's health. Since the physician is at the center of this team, it is crucial for a physician to be able to communicate thoroughly with all members of the health care team, including the patient. Furthermore, as an interpreter at the Community Health clinic and as a volunteer at Amber Coalition I witnessed the importance of empowering patients through education. The more educated patients were about their health, the more likely they would be to comply with a physician's recommendations for treatment.  I am glad to have encountered experiences across the spectrum of medicine since they prepare me for the many roles a physician must play. Physicians are more than just healers; they are counselors, teachers, mentors, and leaders. With my background, I am excited to take on all of these roles.

As a first-year medical student who is attending a medical school with a Problem-Based-Learning curriculum (PBL), I find myself referring to my experiences at Community Health quite often. With a PBL curriculum, we are presented with patient cases and must think through the diagnosis and treatment plan. Many times, I have been presented with lab results or physical exam results that I have encountered at Community Health. The salience of an exam (such as a cranial nerve exam) being performed on an actual patient makes it much easier to remember the exam and the reason for performing it. Remembering these patients from Community Health has helped me to design treatment plans or understand why a certain lab test was ordered for a patient in our PBL cases. I highly recommend this volunteering experience, especially if you are a pre-health first-generation student who has not had exposure to medicine through family members who work in the healthcare field. You will interact with medical students and various specialties such as neurology, cardiology, ophthalmology, and you will walk away from each clinic day knowing that you have helped at least one patient.

Julia Walczak

Registered Nurse

Volunteer Activities

Polish Language Medical Interpreter, Rural Clinic Volunteer RN, Ronald McDonald House

Why I choose my activities?

As cliche as it may sound, I genuinely enjoy helping people. As a nurse, I stand to make a difference in the lives of those around me. Spending so much of my time in the hospital, I wanted to pursue volunteer activities outside of that setting. For me, volunteering as a medical interpreter shows me the needs patients have outside of the hospital, and how those issues, if untreated, can result in patients getting admitted. It gives me perspective and also helps me tailor my patient education based on what I commonly hear physicians tell patients about common issues. I enjoy traveling, and so I started volunteering at a small rural clinic. For me, all night long drives after school or a busy shift are magical. Pushing yourself to drive all night and end up at a clinic in a part of the country you have never been in before, ready to work and help others despite your long journey. I know this seems a bit extreme, but this is an activity that inspires me, and that is the goal, to find unique activities that bring out your inner passion. Additionally, as a break from all the clinical work, I enjoy volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House. I help clean the kitchen or fold laundry. For me, these seemingly monotonous tasks provide a nice break in the day while also helping the families staying there.

What have I learned and how has it helped me?

I have gotten to know a great many patients and community members through volunteering. For me, volunteering is a passion. I plan on doing it for the rest of my life. I have heard so many heartbreaking and inspiring stories describing the various aspects of the human experience. All these interactions, big and small, have helped me personally become a better nurse and a better person. There is something unique about being able to provide a service for someone, while seemingly gaining nothing in return. I have found mentors and role-models through volunteering, and I have been able to do my small part in making another person's day better. I have developed a stronger work ethic and greater depths of empathy which help me both in my personal and professional life.



References

  1. "What Is a Jesuit Education?" Creighton University, Creighton University, 6 Jan. 2014, www.creighton.edu/about/what-jesuit-education.

  2. "Finding Health Care-Related Volunteer Opportunities." AAMC Students, Applicants and Residents, Association of American Medical Colleges, 20 Sept. 2015, students-residents.aamc.org/applying-medical-school/article/finding-health-care-related-volunteer-opportunitie/.

  3. "Clinic." Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/clinic.



Content by: Łukasz Pazdan

Editors and Contributors: Elizabeth Zborek, Angelika Kwak, and Julia Walczak

Agatha Kielczewski