Volunteering Overseas with International Medical Relief: A Self-Fulfilling Opportunity to Give Back

Volunteering Overseas with International Medical Relief: A Self-Fulfilling Opportunity to Give Back

International Medical Relief (IMR) works with Ministries of Health in more than 80 countries around the world to provide dental relief to communities that are lacking basic dental care. Short-term trips from 4-14 days give dental professionals, students, and volunteers without dental experience the opportunity to work directly with patients and make a positive impact on their health and on their lives.

We send volunteers on more than 150 trips per year to communities in Africa, Asia, South and Central America, and Eastern Europe, offering a wide variety of locations in which volunteers can choose to serve. In times of emergency such as responding to natural disasters or humanitarian crises, dental volunteers also support our disaster relief teams to provide care that’s critical to patients’ well-being.

Objectives for Dental Care through IMR

The goal for dental care in IMR clinics focuses on two key objectives: short-term and long-term dental health.

The first objective involves meeting the greatest needs of our patients: relieving oral pain and infection from untreated dental caries. We perform examinations, consultations, and extractions; we treat abscesses; and we refer patients with suspected oral cancers to local medical providers.

Second, and equally important, involves the long-term sustainability of good oral health and hygiene practices. We do this by providing cleanings, fluoride treatments, and oral hygiene instruction.

Sustainability is a key component of our dental care, and conducting community outreach to define the breakdown in dental health is important. We strive for our dental volunteers to educate patients on the root cause of disease in caries, including poor nutrition, access to refined sugars, hydrating with sugary soda drinks, lack of fluoride, and poor hygiene habits.

Working Internationally at the Local Level

Dentists typically see an average of 20-40 patients per day depending on the severity of the cases, the length of time needed with each patient, and the number of extractions per patient. For the most part, our patients have never seen a dentist. If we have the opportunity to work in conjunction with a local dental school, we may be able to easily treat several hundred patients in just a few days.

We always seek out local dentists on our trips. They travel with us to the remote villages and assist with our clinics, working alongside our dentists. Often there is mutual learning and sharing involved. Our dentists learn local teeth brushing and tongue cleaning techniques while demonstrating advanced techniques to local dentists.

Volunteering with IMR

Volunteering on a trip with IMR can be a life-changing experience. Some dentists go with us right before they retire as a bucket-list accomplishment; others have gone on many trips with us. We have some volunteers that make an IMR trip an annual event and bring their office staff or family along for the experience. Everyone who goes on an IMR trip has a valuable role to play whether he or she is a dental professional or not. Nonmedical volunteers are crucial to our clinic operations.

We have no requirements for a maximum or minimum number of dental volunteers per trip. Even one dentist or hygienist on a trip can make a big difference in the lives of our patients. To volunteer as a dentist, one must have an active license. We also require malpractice insurance, and we have resources that can help with easily obtaining a short-term policy. Continuing education credits are available through the ADA in exchange for your volunteer time. Feel free to contact the IMR office to learn more about this.

Many retired dentists have volunteered with us by working with patients on their oral health and hygiene, providing fluoride treatments, assisting practicing dentists, and an active license is not required.

In addition to providing the overall trip cost, which is submitted as a tax-deductible donation to IMR and varies depending on the trip destination, volunteers need a passport (and sometimes a visa), vaccinations based on the destination, and money for souvenirs. Dentists can bring their own instruments or rent a kit from us at a nominal fee that offsets the cost of the instruments.

Volunteers work hard during clinic time, but each of our trips includes some kind of vacation component that the volunteers look forward to. Depending on the location, we will typically take a day or two to go on a safari, visit a beach resort, or experience a country’s culture and learn about its history. Even in the most rustic of locations, we find many ways for our volunteers to relax and have fun.

Oftentimes, our volunteers will take the opportunity to extend their stay after clinic is over for an unforgettable international vacation.

For dental professionals who can’t go on a trip but would still like to support our mission, there are many ways to help out. For example, donations of dental supplies are incredibly valuable to us. Dental offices may also choose to sponsor a student who is fundraising to go on a trip, making his or her efforts a bit easier. Or you may sponsor oral health and hygiene education for an entire village to help improve the community’s overall health.


Shauna King graduated as a Fellow in the Global Health Leaders program at Harvard Medical School and has a Master of Public Administration degree with a finance emphasis from the American University, Graduate School of Public Affairs, as well as a Master of Public Administration degree with a healthcare management emphasis from George Washington University, School of Health Services Management and Policy Institute.

Shauna King can be contacted by email at shaun[email protected] and by phone at (970) 635-0110.

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