Volunteering: Alive and Well Among Dermatologists
Tuesday, November 08, 2005
The word "volunteer" is unusual in that it may be used as a
noun, verb, or adjective. As a noun, it identifies a person who
performs a service of his or her own free will, and, importantly,
as a verb, it means to do charitable or helpful work without
In North America, useful work performed without pay by
volunteers is common in medicine, and it is perhaps even more
common for those who practice dermatology. Although the comments
that follow focus primarily on voluntary service by dermatologists
in North America, I know of many instances in which it is practiced
at other places in the world.
My goals in presenting the types of volunteer opportunities
found in dermatology are, first, to recognize these valuable
contributions and, second, to encourage even more participation.
And I can assure readers that I do have a conflict of interest,
because our own department in Dallas has benefited enormously from
the contributions of more than 50 or so dermatologists over the
last 30 years. Volunteering is alive and well in general, and it is
alive and well in academic teaching programs.
The most obvious time-honored volunteer tradition has been for
practicing dermatologists to "give back" teaching time to local
training programs. These efforts ordinarily focus in 1 of 3
- Serving as attending physicians in outpatient clinics at
"charity" medical centers, clinics that provide care for medically
- Serving as "super-specialists" in university teaching clinics.
This may involve patients with special needs, such as allergic
dermatitis, pediatric diseases, or specialized cutaneous
- Making their private practices available for rotating residents
and medical students.
Work in all 3 of these areas takes time away from patient care,
so that the financial contributions are substantial even when a
modest honorarium is provided. On the other hand, knowledgeable
trainees bring enthusiasm and gratitude to the volunteer
dermatologists as well as stimulating their own "continuing
education." Many dermatologists see this contribution as a partial
"pay-back" for the enjoyable career that the specialty of
dermatology has provided for them. Readers who have not approached
leaders in academic teaching centers to learn about teaching
opportunities may be missing an important opportunity for both
continuing education and recognition.
Throughout the United States, there are cities and towns that
have relatively large numbers of people who are medically indigent.
In fact, it is estimated that as many as 15% of the population does
not have health insurance, and most of these individuals certainly
cannot afford modern medical care. In many of these cities,
individuals and charitable organizations have established "free"
clinics that offer limited medical care for relatively large
numbers of people. Many are organized through churches and other
local charities. These clinics operate at a very low level of
finance, invariably staffed by physicians, nurses, medical
students, and voluntary administrative personnel. In many
localities, foreign-language skills are also valued. As one example
of the literally thousands of opportunities, a consortium of
churches has established the Agape Clinic in Dallas. Other volunteer
opportunities of this sort exist throughout the world.
Volunteer Services to Professional Organizations and
The United States has numerous city, county, state, regional,
and national societies. Most of the teaching activities and many of
the administrative activities that sustain these organizations are
performed by volunteers. Not only do they provide educational
benefits to their members, the amount of volunteer time is
enormous. For example, the Women's Dermatologic Society has provided
useful services to its members, most often by volunteer
participants. Furthermore, professional organizations, such as the
American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), commonly emphasize voluntary
service. A visit to the AAD website reveals that a portion of the
site is devoted to recruiting volunteers.
Moving to the international level, there are many
well-recognized international charitable organizations that
emphasize medical care in various underserved countries and regions
of the world. A prime example is the Regional Dermatology Training
Centre in Moshi, Tanzania (RDTC) sponsored by the International League of
Dermatology Societies (ILDS) through the International Foundation
Other organizations are more general in nature, such as Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières
(MSF), an international independent medical humanitarian
organization that delivers emergency aid to people throughout the
Ultimately, money and time are in many ways interchangeable.
Those who have less time for volunteer service may choose to donate
money instead. In fact, virtually all charitable organizations are
short of money, meaning that donations, commonly tax deductible,
are encouraged. Once again, many dermatologists are already major
donors to such organizations. We hope that this brief review of a
limited number of opportunities for volunteer service will
stimulate further discussion and increased participation by those
who practice dermatology.