How Doctors Without Borders Works

Working for Doctors Without Borders

When a group of workers arrives to a field site, they are charged with providing medical care in the midst of some of the most stressful situations imaginable. They come armed with MSF's premade medical kits, which contain a vast array of supplies needed for a given situation; if workers are fighting epidemics, they may bring the vaccination kit, while workers with the surgical kit will have everything they need to operate. Having these kits ready-made allows MSF to respond to emergencies quickly.

Despite this logistical legwork, field staff face primitive and dangerous conditions. They may travel to see patients by canoe or by camel. Doctors have been victims of kidnappings and killings, though so far, MSF has only pulled out of North Korea and Afghanistan for reasons related to staff safety. Those selected to work in the field go through in-depth security briefings as part of the rigorous training process.

For a doctor, a day's work may include seeing patients, training local caregivers and arranging shipments of food to the malnourished. It's difficult to describe what the experience will be like; returning volunteers have described feeling "useless" in the face of such gigantic problems [source: Bortolotti]. It's easy to be frustrated by the things that can't be accomplished or by the people who can't be saved, but participants say that it's an eye-opening and vibrant program.

Working with MSF isn't the kind of thing a medical student could do to pad his or her resume; applicants must have two years experience in their position and meet profession-specific requirements. Knowledge of French is helpful, as is other relevant work experiences abroad. Applicants must also be willing to leave their lives behind for a minimum of nine to 12 months once they are assigned. Assignments are made based on field needs after a selective screening process. Only about 10 percent of a field mission's staff is composed of international professionals; the rest of the 27,000 workers providing services in the field are locals [source: MSF].

For more ways to make a difference in the world, see the links below.

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  • Bortolotti, Dan. "Hope in Hell: Inside the World of Doctors Without Borders." Firefly Books. 2004.
  • Brauman, Rony and Joelle Tanguy. "The Médecins Sans Frontières Experience." 1998. (June 15, 2009)
  • Daley, Suzanne. "Doctors' Group of Volunteers Awarded Nobel." New York Times. Oct. 16, 1999. (June 15, 2009)
  • Gall, Carlotta. "Killings Drive Doctor Group to Leave Afghanistan." New York Times. July 29, 2004. (June 15, 2009)
  • Marks, Simon and Laurent Laughlin. "'Borderless' aid groups don't always see eye to eye." New York Times. Jan. 26, 2009. (June 15, 2009)
  • Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (U.S.) Web site. (June 15, 2009)
  • Spencer, Miranda. "The World is Their Emergency Room: Doctors Without Borders." Biography. June 2000.
  • Strom, Stephanie. "Nonprofit Groups Draw a Line at Some Donors." New York Times. Jan. 28, 2007. (June 15, 2009)