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Why Do Medical Missionaries Leave the Field?

Why Some Wash Out Early

Over the years one of the things that has been most concerning to me is the number of medical missionaries that wash out in their first few years. We know attrition rates are higher in medical missions but when there is a failure to launch, meaning they came home in the first few years, we need to look at these closely. As an organization CHSC has not really encountered this, but I have seen it in my contact with mission stations around the world. This is something I study when I learn about these situations. Primarily because I think we can use these situations to help us better prepare and support families on the field. I think it is important to avoid placing them in situations they are likely to fail. We need to ask what causes such failures. Was it poor preparation? Poor site selection? Poor on field support? Lack of support? Or a combination of all these things?

Medical Missionary Attrition Has not Been Well Studied

The challenge is there has not been a lot of data collected to help look specifically at medical missionary attrition. This is because there are few mission organizations that recognize or understand the need for healthcare professionals to be prepared, supported and care for differently. If medical missionaries are lumped in with church planters, bible college teachers and bible translators it is hard to see if they have different issues driving them to leave the field. You can read more about this in another recent post.

For example, not long ago I interviewed a single female physician that left the field at 2 years. She reported that because she was the lone single person on the mission station, she ended up carrying a much greater load. Since she did not have a family to go home to and set boundaries around, she was expected to do more call and work longer hours. This eventually resulted in her departure from the field.

I also recently spoke with a pediatrician that left the field after a year because he could not cope with the vast amount of child death he saw while serving in a rural African bush hospital. He lost 150 children in his first year. That is not your typical missionary problem of not getting along with other missionaries. That is a situation that causes post traumatic stress and life life-long wounds in the provider.

One Unaccounted for Variable

There is however, another reason for the higher attrition in medical missions that few people consider. It stems from another way medical missionaries are different. Most missionaries faced with leaving the field have to go home and begin a job search to re-enter the workforce. They could come home and search for months without finding gainful employment, especially in ministry. The transition home and back into the work force is a difficult and challenging path so staying on the field even when things get really tough will likely remain a viable option.

Not so with medical missionaries. A missionary doctor always has the option when things get challenging to return home to a strong six figure suburban lifestyle. If things are not working out on the field, a medical professional can always return home and make a really good living. Nurses can make that transition even easier without the extensive need for credentialing that physicians encounter. Nursing is one of the few professions that can choose where to work in the USA and then have travel companies competing to place them in that location for a good salary. Plus these companies provide bonuses, travel expenses, and housing.  Most non-medical missionaries will not experience this ease in transition home.

It is unlikely any study or survey done could adequately account for this variable. But this ease at which medical missionaries can transition home means we have to be diligent in our support, and provide other location options for field service if their first option is not a good fit. For more on this see another recent blog post Choosing Where to Serve as a Medical Missionary

What Studies Have Been Done? 

There was however, a first attempt to look at medical missionary attrition. There was a survey facilitated by Medsend, our partner that pays education debt for many of our missionaries. This was the first attempt to look specifically at attrition in medical missions, so we applaud this effort! If you are interested in the results you can find a summary of this survey on their website at Click Here

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