Medical Assistants Save Lives in War Zones and Abroad

Until recently San Diego native Derek Coleman was working as a machinist in a factory. Today he finds himself in a field trauma center outside the city of Mosul in Iraq, one of today’s most active war zones.

Speaking about his motivations for traveling halfway across the world in a PBS Newshour report, Coleman explains, “… I wanted a little adventure … I thought I could help somehow.” He linked up with an NGO based in Slovakia and before he knew it was on a flight to the Middle East.

Coleman was a machinist with some prior medical training. Having a degree and certification as a medical assistant opens up a wider variety of volunteer and paid opportunities throughout the world.

Doctors Without Borders, also known widely by its French acronym MSF, is perhaps the best known example of an NGO that sends people like medical assistants throughout the world to help those most in need. In 2014 MSF had teams in 64 countries that provided care for:

  • 3 million outpatient consultations
  • 511,800 inpatient treatments
  • 194,000 births

MSF is just one of many NGOs and charities where medical assistants can find opportunities to engage in humanitarian and medical work abroad. MSF is not a volunteer organization; its starting salary is $1,913 per month. Employees get full medical benefits, a 401k, and 25 days of paid vacation each year.

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Medical assistant active in Sudan conflict – MSF was present in Sudan during the Darfur conflict. One of their reports details how a medical assistant joined a team comprised of two nurses, two translators, and five drivers to provide vital services in regional villages that had been struck by conflict. The medical assistant provided services related to birth, treatment of malnutrition, measles vaccinations, and care for bullet wounds.

Yemen medical assistant holds out at hospital – Medical professionals at an MSF hospital in Northern Yemen specializing in mother-and-child care as well as emergency treatments were forced to evacuate to that nation’s capital after heavy weapons were being used in their vicinity. Patients seeking treatment were forced to travel to another MSF facility further away. Due to the possibility of violence the most qualified medical staff were forced to once again evacuate, however one medical assistant and two nurses remained behind to provide basic emergency services.

Malawi fights AIDS with medical assistants – MSF estimates that about 65 percent of health care worker positions in Malawi are vacant. The main reason for this is that government training schools graduate far too few medical professionals each year to meet the nation’s demand. Enrollment is down because the cost of a medical education is out of reach for many. A general lack of medical assistants, nurses, and doctors has hampered the fight against HIV/AIDS. To combat this MSF began a targeted scholarship program that in 2013 graduated 30 mid-level health workers, including 10 medical assistants.