How Nurses Can Get Involved With Medical Mission Trips

4 Min Read Published December 29, 2017
How Nurses Can Get Involved With Medical Mission Trips

By Kathleen Colduvell RN, BSN, BA, CBC

Recent natural disasters such as Hurricanes Irma and Maria crushing Puerto Rico and Hurricane Harvey devastating Texas there has been an overwhelming need for volunteer registered nurses.

Despite the need at home for volunteers, there has been an increasing need abroad for nurses to volunteer on medical mission trips. 

More than 1.3 billion people across the world lack access to basic healthcare services let alone more complex services such as surgery or advance obstetric care. Developing countries need advance medical assistance and have the largest number of medical missions available for nurses to volunteer. 

Medical missions are trips in which trained medical professionals travel to foreign countries with a specific medical purpose for a designated period of time. This can vary in duration from one week to years depending on the organization.

Needs of the organization and the medical objective of the mission will dictate who is able to travel on missions. These individuals may include:

  • registered nurses
  • speech therapist
  • surgeons
  • residents
  • physicians
  • physical therapists

Medical missions were originally developed by religious organizations and would provide basic healthcare while also improving the community. A large number of organizations are still embedded in their religious beginnings; however, most will gladly allow anyone to volunteer.

Mission trips are generally organized to developing nations that have a dire need for basic healthcare services. These include countries in Africa, South America, and Central America.

Most nurses interested in volunteering for medical missions will determine locations of interest and then find organizations that have current mission trips to those areas.

Interestingly, some hospitals are starting to organize their own mission trips. This past fall, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia organized a surgical medical mission to Guatemala to perform life-changing surgeries on dozens of children. Missions organized by healthcare organizations are strictly for employees and do not require vacation time to participate. 

Healthcare systems are not required to give employees time off for volunteer missions, but most do have policies regarding this. It’s important to speak to your supervisor before signing up for a mission.

Some hospitals will allow for one non-paid week every other year while others will offer paid vacation with the proper documentation. Due to the fact missions trips are often planned months in advance, nurses are encouraged to speak to their managers to ensure time off is guaranteed.

Nurses are also able to use their own PTO time in order to volunteer abroad. 

With an increasing number of organizations available it can be daunting and overwhelming to interesting nurses. Here’s a short list of some reputable organizations that are ready for adventurous and willing volunteers!

Samaritan’s Purse International Mission

A 501(c)(3) Christian organization offers a variety of missions ranging from healthcare, clean water initiative, feeding projects, construction projects and sanitation. Nurses are required to submit an online application and letters of recommendation from current and former colleagues. 

While this organization is rooted in Christian faith, it has a strong reputation in the volunteer community. It welcomes individuals of all religious affiliations. Trip locations vary but have included Iraq, Vietnam, Kenya, and Tanzania. Costs also vary based on the length, ranging 2 to 4 weeks, of the trip but can range from $500-$2500. 

Remote Area Medical - RAM USA

Founded by Stan Brock in 1985, RAM operates clinics in impoverished, isolated, and underserved areas of the United States. The mission of the organization is to “enhance quality of life through the delivery of competent and compassionate health care.”

While the focus of RAM is to serve the disenfranchised on mainland USA, it currently is operating five mobile clinics in Puerto Rico to assist in hurricane recovery. 

Clinics are currently being offered in parts of Virginia, Ohio, and Tennessee. Registered nurses are limited to volunteering in the triage area of the clinic but there are countless opportunities available for other trained medical professionals. A small nominal fee is required for volunteers as well as arranging their own transportation to the site of the clinic. 


A non-denominational humanitarian organization focuses entirely on the needs Central America. Trips typically last 7-10 days and are comprised of medical and non-medical volunteers.

These trips tend to be more rustic in accommodations such as back-packer tents and cots. Living conditions are important to consider when determining which mission organization is best suited for you. Trips are typically $1500. 

Project HOPE

Project HOPE currently has medical projects focusing on infectious disease, chronic disease, health policy, disasters and health crisis, and maternal/neonatal/child health.

Current needs are for Spanish speaking nurses to assist in Puerto Rico but other openings are available in China, Haiti, Kosovo, and the Dominican Republic. Costs are based strictly on the length of time and location. Volunteer opportunities are sparse for nurses and often fill up very quickly. 

This short list is only a small sampling of organizations that conduct medical missions to help serve those in need. Missions range in length of time and price but there are ones that could potentially fit everyone’s needs.

Make sure to ask the appropriate questions and research all aspects of the mission. There are rarely hidden costs but if cost is a deciding factor - local humanitarian missions might be more feasible than international ones. Nurses are born helpers and medical missions are another way to better the healthcare world. 

Next Up: Benefits and Opportunities as a Travel Nurse


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