Doctors without Borders: A Good Fit for Nurses?

NursingJuly 15, 2014

As a nurse, you may think the volunteer program Doctors without Borders is not necessarily for you. Despite the misleading name, nurses play key roles in the organization's mission to deliver emergency medical care to people suffering from disasters such as war or disease epidemics.

Doctors without Borders was founded by a group of French doctors in 1971; its French name is Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). The horrors of the Nigerian Civil War spurred a team of doctors to launch a humanitarian organization where they could provide medical care to countries in crisis. Nurses have been part of the group's volunteers from the beginning.

Nurses in Doctors Without Borders

Being a nurse allows you to participate in a volunteer program that typically lasts 9 to 12 months. The organization is looking for registered nurses, nurse-midwifes, operating room nurses and nurse anesthesiologists. As a nurse in the program, you will help people who may not have access to health care without MSF and the impact you have on the local population will be significant. If your goal is to move to a developing country and work full-time serving the community, MSF is the perfect option for you.

Joining the organization may also open doors at home. Employers often look for volunteer service, especially if you want to work in public health or serve disadvantaged populations. You can learn about uncommon medical conditions and diseases that may not have been discussed in your textbooks. You may also have more responsibilities and challenges than you are used to, which will prepare you for highly demanding jobs. You will gain invaluable experience dealing with cultural differences and language barriers.

But this is no entry-level opportunity: All of MSF's aid workers take on leadership roles supervising and training local teams, which is why management or teaching experience is required. According to MSF's website, nurses may spend little time taking care of patients and primarily focus on managing a program and a team. You will also receive a monthly salary, as well as compensation for airfare, visas, vaccinations and medical insurance.

Requirements for Volunteer Nursing

Applying to MSF can be tougher than getting your first nursing job. You may be asked about your community service contributions and international experience, as well as how well you would adapt to living in very basic conditions.

The organization is so selective that it describes some of the reasons that you may not be a suitable candidate on its website. If you are not prepared to live in unsafe locations without material comfort, the program may not be for you. To be accepted into MSF, and to appreciate the experience, you need to be driven by a true passion to help people in need — not an opportunity to travel. Workers are often under curfew and may not be allowed to leave the area after the work day due to security concerns, although restrictions will be fewer in safer areas.

There are also more specific requirements, including a diploma and license, at least two years of relevant work experience and applicable travel experience, preferably internationally.

If you meet the requirements and can commit to spending 9 to 12 months in an unfamiliar, stressful and possibly risky environment, joining Doctors without Borders as a nurse can be a life-changing experience.