Charity Begins at Home – U.S. Physicians Volunteer

Health and Healthcare CategoryOne of the biggest crises facing the United States today is healthcare. There are approximately 47 million people in the United States who have no medical insurance. Millions more have inadequate insurance coverage, cannot afford their premiums or deductibles, and have no access to dental care.

In the wake of recent international disasters (Myanmar and China to name the most recent), much publicity has focused on foreign aid. The U.S. spends billions of dollars every year to help those less fortunate in other countries.

But are they doing enough for their own citizens?

The Magnificent MileCBS reported on an unusual occurrence in Tennessee in February of this year. Remote Area Medical, originally founded to provide medical aid to remote parts of the world, set up a free clinic in an exhibit hall in Knoxville. Within hours, they had all the work they could handle as people drove hundreds of miles to camp in the parking lot, hoping to be allowed access to the free medical, dental, and optometry services offered by volunteers.

According to the American Medical Association (AMA), nearly 65% of approximately 518,195 post-residency patient care physicians provided care to the indigent in 1999. In a Board of Trustees Report, the AMA Foundation discussed methods to support health services for the uninsured.

Out of their recommendations it is apparent that many physicians are willing to volunteer their time and expertise to caring for indigent patients. However, they are often required to pay for their own licensing requirements and insurances. Because many of the physicians who volunteer are retired, these fees (which can be quite steep) are sometimes a deterrent to volunteerism.

One way to help those patients who cannot afford healthcare would be to take advantage of retired doctors who want to serve the poor. States could pay licensing fees for these volunteer doctors, and could also provide insurance coverage in return for a minimum number of hours of service.

Some states have taken the initiative in offering licenses free of charge to volunteer physicians who serve only indigent patients or who serve in areas that are underserved. Some states offer licenses at a reduced fee. Some states have adopted legislation to limit liability of volunteers. The Volunteer Protection Act, passed in 1997, sets a minimum national standard for immunity laws for volunteers. Although it sets limits on awards, it still does not provide full protection and physician volunteers, or the organizations they work for, are still responsible for medical liability insurance.

With a large number of retired physicians who are civic-minded, states could go a long way towards easing the burden of the uninsured by making it easier for retired physicians to do what they do best.


Rooney, W.R. (2003). Maintaining a Medication List in the Chart. Family Practice Management, 10(1), 52-54.

Jennifer Bunn, RN

Jennifer Bunn, RN, is a registered nurse who has been practicing for over 15 years.
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