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What the Next Generation of Medical Missionaries Might Look Like

Photo by Lucas Vasques on Unsplash

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been riveted by the incredibly inspiring story of Dr. Kent Brantly and the Samaritan’s Purse team working on the front lines of the Ebola epidemic in Liberia. These selfless individuals represent so much of what is excellent in the medical profession. They make all of us within the healthcare community proud.

As this ongoing drama has unfolded, I have been incredibly impressed, not only by the inspirational narrative concerning Dr. Brantly and his peers, but also by how quickly the narrative has spiraled into increasing complexity. Over the span of just a few days, we’ve witnessed a storyline that has gone from being the tragic inoculation of an American by a horrific and rare infectious disease, to the coordination of an international response and growing humanitarian emergency, to the evacuation and transport of the American patients back to U.S. soil.

Over There Is Over Here

Through this crisis, it’s become obvious that international health is no longer about dealing with those diseases “over there,” but about developing systems and strategies for responding to incredibly complex issues regardless of their original location of presentation. In her editorial about the Ebola epidemic that appeared in the The Washington Post, Emory nurse Susan Grant offered the following keen insight:

[Ebola] is part of our world, and if we want to eradicate these types of potentially fatal diseases before they reach our shores uncontrolled, we have to contribute to the global research effort. Today, diseases do not stay contained to one city, country, or even continent.

Grant’s perspective is insightful. Crises of this proportion require not just the efforts of individual doctors and nurses working “in the bush,” but the coordination of a wide range of skillsets not often regarded as part of “international healthcare.” Examples of these diverse activities include research to develop efficacious vaccines, marketing to educate the public about how these illnesses are transmitted, public policy so governments can more effectively coordinate their responses, and business to help provide access to care, just to name a few.

Future of Medical ‘Missions’

Although it doesn’t exactly fit the typical caricature of the Christian medical missionary, it could be that many of the next generation of Christians called to medical missions will ply their trade not in the thatched huts of remote villages, but within the walls of research universities, doing the original research and building the healthcare systems that improve health outcomes. Such is state of global healthcare in today’s complex world.

As Christians passionate about helping our neighbors around the world, we should be encouraged by these trends. A more systemic, global approach to healthcare will improve healthcare delivery and outcomes, as well as help support healthcare workers in the field. This systemic approach has been evident in the incredibly wide breadth of talent involved in this Ebola disaster response. The local governmental agencies, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Emory University Hospital, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have all contributed much to this effort and underscored why their expertise and sustained commitment to global healthcare are so important.

The Ebola epidemic is both an inspiring story of sacrifice and service and an example of the complexities of working in global healthcare today. Thankfully, through God’s common grace, this increased complexity is being addressed by a diverse group of contributors.