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What does a doctor gain from giving back? Understanding the relationship between poverty and health



In the United States alone, there’s a staggering 14-year gap in life expectancy between the top and bottom 1% of the population in terms of wealth.1 And this disparity exists in communities throughout the world, in regions rural, urban, or anywhere between.

For a physician who’s looking to deliver the best possible care to your patients, it’s important to develop a nuanced understanding of the connections between poverty and health. While this understanding can certainly be developed at your workplace, you may also want to consider engaging in volunteer experiences with organizations that provide medical care to low-resource populations.2 Volunteer and humanitarian work can be rewarding and even allow you to see your work in a different way.

Many physicians find deep satisfaction through volunteering with free clinics like West Virginia Health Right, which is the largest and oldest free and charitable clinic in West Virginia and was recently featured on TIAA’s 100 Difference Makers series for its work in closing the health care gap by providing free and low-cost health care to low resource populations.  West Virginia Health Right founder and CEO Angela Settle told TIAA she is driven to provide healthcare to vulnerable populations—whether uninsured or underinsured, and is inspired by the Martin Luther King Junior quote, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”

There’s no doubting that many of these free clinics make a huge difference in the lives of their patients. Here’s a convincing example—an uninsured patient named Mark once came into West Virginia Health Right with chest pain and a volunteer cardiologist identified a 99% artery blockage that likely would have led to death if it hadn’t been detected. The patient acknowledged that his experience at the clinic saved his life.3

HEALTHCARE_Doctor gain from giving back_doctor_mother_child

John Knarr, a Fairlawn, Virginia-based internal medicine physician, volunteers at a free clinic that provides healthcare for low-income patients.  He has said the experience lends him the opportunity to give back while also gaining a closer understanding of the needs of the community.4

“Volunteering at the free clinic allows me to do what I went to medical school for – helping people, most of whom live with multiple chronic diseases with no other means for health care,” he said in a letter to Medical Society of Virginia members. “Each patient I treat is grateful for the help they receive.”4

Volunteering your clinical skills with an international humanitarian organization like Project HOPE or Physicians for Peace is another option. Gastroenterology specialist Edward Lilly has taken more than 10 short-term medical volunteer trips to Haiti with Physicians for Peace and says he is grateful for the way these experiences have expanded his view of the world and enriched his life and work.5


For a physician who’s looking to deliver the best possible care to your patients, it’s important to develop a nuanced understanding of the connections between poverty and health.

“My experience with Physicians for Peace has made me much more aware of the needs throughout the world and the complexities of medical service in underdeveloped countries,” he said in discussion with the American College of Gastroenterology. “It has also given me a framework in which to work, with logistical support and tactical planning to insure that we address the particular needs of the locality to be served.”5

In addition to helping you broaden your understanding of the many ways that poverty and health are tied together, volunteer work in this area will allow you to develop into a more experienced physician, find more inspiration for your work, and help patients who otherwise may not be able to receive adequate healthcare. 


[1] Canudas-Romo, V. (2018). Life expectancy and poverty. The Lancet Global Health,6(8). doi:10.1016/s2214-109x(18)30327-9
[4] Physician Volunteers. (n.d.). Retrieved from
[5] Lilly, E. L., MD. (n.d.). International Volunteerism Experiences from the Field. Retrieved from
Header Photo Credit: Abd. Halim Hadi /
Body Photo Credit #1: Felix Lipov /
Body Photo Credit #2: Lano Lan /
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