This study represents the first large-scale cohort analysis to address Taiwan’s provision of STMMs. We have identified the scope and content of Taiwan’s STMMs sponsored by the TaiwanICDF. Our results demonstrate that most participants were satisfied with intra-team communication, interpreter services, and healthcare services. These findings suggest that STMMs established by the TaiwanICDF are well planned and efficient in providing health care to host nations. We found five main common characteristics among Taiwan’s STMMs. First, the TaiwanICDF collaborated with 37 hospitals to offer the medical contingent from surge capacity. Second, the health logistics are delivered from Taiwan. Third, STMM personnel are mostly physicians. Fourth, local inhabitants, including expatriates, made up part of the healthcare team through collaborative effort (data not shown). And fifth, the missions are mobile; with most serving multiple locations.
STMMs can provide unique experiences for their participants. In developed countries, many institutes arrange electives to participate in health care overseas [2, 8]. They provide global health education to broaden physicians’ own clinical practices and enhance their humanitarian efforts. The success of STMMs has the benefit of helping improve the willingness of health professionals to volunteer to serve in underdeveloped locations. Other than the short orientation STMM members receive, there is no training program in Taiwan yet for medical missions.
In our study, approximately three-fourths of participants rated STMMs as a means to gain and maintain diplomatic friendships. In contrast to religious and faith-based organizations [19, 20], Taiwan’s STMMs are mobilized on the basis of diplomatic considerations: Only a relatively small group of countries recognize the sovereignty of the Republic of China (Taiwan) [5, 21]. Health aid to resource-limited countries has been proposed as a useful method to gain their friendship [22, 23]. Taiwan has official diplomatic relations with only twenty-three nations, making this consideration perhaps different than it would be for people in many other countries. In an attempt to help both foster and cement diplomatic ties, the TaiwanICDF was established to represent Taiwan in overseas cooperation projects. Its funding comes from Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In addition to providing medical aid, the TaiwanICDF aims to promote international relations between Taiwan and its developing partner nations. Providing economic assistance and foreign aid (such as grants, loans, and technical support) to diplomatic allies is part of Taiwan’s foreign policy . On the other hand, the deployment of Taiwanese STMMs is based on Taiwan’s strategic interests and is designed to rally international support to break through diplomatic barriers set by the People’s Republic of China [21, 23]. Therefore, Taiwan’s health aid is not only a humanitarian gesture but also a political consideration.
The number of health professionals who volunteer for STMMs has been rising quickly . Although teamwork is an important factor in guiding the success of STMMs, very little research has been done to investigate the methods by which healthcare personnel are enrolled; and most articles on the subject are from self-published reports [1, 7, 9, 12, 19, 25]. STMM members from multiple institutions may be unfamiliar with one another; managing such STMMs to ensure successful cooperation is therefore a challenge. In this study, we used a comparative survey to investigate the efficiency of STMMs. Our study demonstrated that STMMs in Central America and those in the South Pacific have similar efficiency, which suggests that clinical service provided by STMMs from multiple institutions has been as efficient as that of missions from a single institution.
In addition to the recruitment, we have disclosed two significant issues. First, language is an important skill in STMMs, with language barriers impairing communication between patients and healthcare providers . Most mission members do not master Spanish. Our findings suggest that the development of a Spanish class focusing on medical terminology may be necessary to promote language proficiency among those who join STMMs to Central America. However, finding qualified teachers and teaching material, especially for the languages of remote tribes, is sometimes impossible outside the local setting. In addition, there is the question of how much language proficiency could practically be obtained in advance, especially for missions that may last only one or two weeks. Given the high level of satisfaction with the interpreters that were assigned to such missions, language did not appear to pose a substantial obstacle to STMMs that had translators available. Nonetheless, in cases where medical aid workers can speak additional languages, it would be beneficial to match, if possible, their service to destinations where such languages are spoken.
Second, our results indicate that most health professionals believed education can help local health workers to improve their knowledge and skills in health care. Although STMMs yield invaluable learning experiences, they fare less well in generating a meaningful, long-term impact on the provision of health care to local populations. It has been proposed that teaching is the most effective role played by STMMs, with capacity building through partnerships with local health workers being the most valuable [1, 14, 26, 27]. Activities such as teacher training should be as important as individual encounters with patients. However, health personnel serving in Taiwan’s STMMs were often too busy to train local health workers. Furthermore, our study indicates that relatively little education was provided to local health workers by STMMs staffed from multiple institutions, especially in training for the administration of equipment (28%) and drugs (12%). This difference could be associated with several factors. First, there may be a lack of consensus among STMM members from multiple institutions about how to teach local health workers. Second, language is a significant barrier for missions to Central America. Third, there may be insufficient time to teach local health workers due to the heavier clinical loads that missions to Central America typically have. And fourth, the predominance of community-based missions to Central America and the Caribbean may limit educational opportunities for local health workers.
A couple of methodological issues should be cautiously interpreted in this study. First, inaccuracy may occur by reviewing the daily reports of STMMs. In this study, we used a questionnaire survey to reduce such possible bias. Second, our questionnaire is a self-estimated survey and did not explore the quality of health care. It may not reflect actual behavior in real-life situations. Further studies are needed to evaluate the impact of STMMs on the care outcome in recipient nations.