How To Do Humanitarian Work As A Doctor (Complete Guide)

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Every year, millions of people around the world are affected by conflicts and disasters and are in urgent need of medical care. Every day, hundreds of million people do not have access to quality healthcare due to poverty and lack of development.

Humanitarian organizations work tirelessly to provide medical care to people in need. Qualified doctors are highly sought after in the aid sector. If you’re interested in working in humanitarian aid as a doctor, we’ve put together this full guide of how you can use your medical knowledge and skills to help people in dire need of medical assistance.

Being A Humanitarian Doctor: An Overview

When people are affected by crises or conflicts, they often lose access to healthcare. There has been a long history of doctors traveling to areas of disasters or wars to set-up projects providing medical aid. From the origins of the Red Cross movement in the 1863, to the foundation of MSF in 1971, doctors have been at the forefront of humanitarian aid since it’s modern inception.

Thousand of doctors are currently working around the world providing aid to people in need. Many people enter medicine because they wish to use the knowledge and skills to help people who are less fortunate. This often drives them towards humanitarian work.

Working as a doctor within a humanitarian response is challenging. When crises hits, infrastructure is damaged, including medical facilities. This means doctors working on humanitarian missions must often provide care without the full support of the facilities they used to at home.  There are also often issues with procuring equipment and drugs in crises zones, and so humanitarian doctors must learn to adapt.

Doctors deployed as part of a humanitarian mission often work in diverse and international teams. Aid agencies do their best to employ local staff as much as possible, but where the medical capacity is limited, or specialist knowledge is required, international staff will be deployed.

Often, doctors working on aid projects must work among colleagues from all over the world and with many different backgrounds. Being able to synchronise working and be flexible in how care is approached is key to medical teams working well in humanitarian settings.

Joining a humanitarian mission and using your medical expertise to help some of the most vulnerable people in the world is highly rewarding. Many doctors find working on humanitarian missions to be where their medical expertise has the greatest impact.

Humanitarian Doctor Qualifications

The first step to working in the humanitarian sector as a doctor is getting the right qualifications. There is really two steps to this.

Firstly, in order to do humanitarian medical work, you need be a qualified doctor. This means reaching the stage where you are qualified to practice medicine in your home country. In most places this requires both the completion of the medical degree and a period of on-the-job training. It is important you’re qualified to work as a doctor before you apply for medical positions on humanitarian aid projects.

Humanitarian NGOs will not fund your training to become a doctor. You need to have completed that before joining the aid sector.

As well as completing formal medical training in your home country, you are likely to need a few years of practical experience as a doctor before you do humanitarian work.

Doctors are deployed by aid NGOs into difficult contexts, often working with limited supplies and with facilities that are much more basic than in their home countries. Doctors on humanitarian missions need to be highly skilled and be able to adapt their medical practice to the realities of working on the front-line of a disaster or crises.

The second stage to becoming qualified to work on aid projects as a doctor is to get an understanding of medical assistance in humanitarian contexts. It’s important to gain additional qualifications that give you the knowledge needed to apply for medical work in disaster and conflict zones, as well as areas of extreme poverty.

There are a number of organisations that offer training courses in humanitarian medical assistance. These include:

Alongside these in-person courses, there is also a range of online courses on humanitarian health. We’ve compiled a full list.

Taking some of these courses in addition to your formal medical training is key to getting into humanitarian aid as a doctor. NGOs will look for qualified doctors who have a knowledge and understanding of how medical aid is given in humanitarian crises and disaster zones, as well as areas of high depravation.

Humanitarian Health Online Courses

If you are looking to work as a humanitarian doctor, a great addition to your CV is an online course. We think the Emory University course on Health in Complex Humanitarian Emergencies is one of the best. It covers the key concepts of healthcare in humanitarian contexts. Follow the link to the course’s page.

We also highly recommend the University of Copenhagen’s online short course in Non-Communicable Diseases in Humanitarian Settings. It only takes around 15 hours to complete, and we think it’s ideal for those wanting to become a doctor in the aid sector. Click the link to find out more.

Another online course we recommend for those looking to work as a humanitarian doctor is the Manchester University Global Health and Humanitarianism course. It’s a fantastic overview of both the theory and practice of humanitarian aid and public health. The link is to the course’s page with more information.

Humanitarian Medical Organizations

Once you have become a qualified doctor and completed at least some trainings on humanitarian medicine, it’s time to target aid agencies for jobs or volunteer postings.

Medical aid is a huge part of the humanitarian sector. Millions of people each year are affected by crises, conflicts, and disasters and many of them lose access to quality medical care. Many crises also result in widespread death, injury and disease and humanitarian NGOs respond to this.

Some of the top humanitarian NGOs recruiting doctors are:

Each NGO that runs humanitarian medical projects will have their own requirements, projects, and locations where they work. Take time to research the different organisations in the aid sector and find ones that suit your career aims.

As well as humanitarian aid agencies that employ doctors, there are also several United Nations agencies that take on medical staff. The UN agencies that often recruit doctors include:

If you’re looking to work as a humanitarian doctor, pursuing positions both in front-line aid NGOs and the UN are good routes to go. The United Nations generally takes a more coordination level role in crises, where-as aid NGOs are often on the front-line delivering services to people in need. Look at your current skills and qualifications, as well as think about what roles within humanitarian aid you want to do, before applying for medical positions.

Humanitarian Doctor Roles

As well as knowing which humanitarian agencies employ doctors to work on their aid projects, it’s also important to understand the different roles that doctors can do within the aid sector. Let’s go over some of the main ones.

The first role that doctors do on humanitarian missions is acting as a medical doctor. This is usually when aid agencies deploy medical teams to disaster or conflict zones to directly provide medical care to affected people. They will work in local hospitals, or field clinics set-up after the disaster. Doctors doing this type of humanitarian work will usually work in a mixed team of international and local staff and do short-term missions whilst still retaining their jobs in their home country.

The second role that is common for doctors to take on when working on aid projects is as a Medical Advisor. This is where doctors are deployed by humanitarian organisations to provide advice to medical projects. In these positions, doctors do not directly provide medical care, or manage the aid projects, but use their medical training to provide assistance and direction. Often Medical Advisors will work with a team of local doctors to build their capacity.

Another position that medical doctors often do on humanitarian missions is the role of Programme Manager. The Programme Manager directly oversees the implementation of an aid project, including line-managing the staff, directing implementation, coordinating with HR and logistics and managing the budget. Doctors usually work as Programme Managers for medical aid projects.

The role of Medical Coordinator is also a position in the aid sector that doctors often take on. The role essentially combines the position of Medical Advisor and Programme Manager. The Medical Coordinator provides technical assistance to the medical teams whilst also being responsible, jointly with the Programmes team, for the implementation of the health project.

These are just some of the jobs open to doctors within the humanitarian aid sector. With many NGOs running medical projects in a huge range of contexts, there are many more positions that fully qualified doctors can apply for.

Applying for Humanitarian Jobs as a Doctor

If you’re looking to work in humanitarian aid as a doctor, there are three main ways you can go about applying for jobs.

The first way to apply for jobs within the aid sector in medical positions is to directly apply to aid agencies advertising roles for doctors. All NGOs that advertise their positions online – both on their websites and on job boards. If you’re looking to work long-term in humanitarian aid as a doctor, check the websites of medical NGOs often and apply directly to suitable roles.

Some of the largest job boards where NGOs advertise open positions are:

When applying for jobs with medical NGOs its important you meet, or at least come close to, the job requirements. Many positions in the humanitarian sector will require you to have a few years’ experience in the aid sector, on top of your training as a doctor. However, there are also jobs directly open to doctors without any previous experience in humanitarian aid.

As well as jobs that are directly advertised by humanitarian medical NGOs, many also have rosters that doctors can apply for.

Rosters allow humanitarian organisations to retain a register of people ready to deploy when an emergency hits. You need to apply to join the roster of an aid NGO. You will usually do an interview and then be approved to join the roster. When a suitable position arises, aid agencies will inform you and ask if you wish to deploy. You are not paid for being on the roster until you deployed. However, roster deployments tend to be short-term, and it is often possible to keep your medical position in your home country whilst on a roster and return to it after your deployment.

Another way to get a position as a doctor as part of a humanitarian project is to volunteer. There are many aid organizations that offer short and long-term volunteer postings for qualified doctors. Some of the leading ones are:

Many jobs in the humanitarian sector require several years of experience working on aid projects. Taking a volunteer positions can be one of the best ways to begin a career as a humanitarian. Qualified doctors with experience in working in disaster and conflict zones, or areas of extreme poverty, are higher sought after by humanitarian organizations.

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Being a Doctor and Doing Humanitarian Work

One question many doctors ask who are looking to work in humanitarian aid is how to balance their commitments at home whilst also doing overseas missions. As a final note, we’ll go over the two most common arrangements.

Firstly, many humanitarian agencies employ doctors in full-time positions. Roles such as Medical Coordinator or Health Programme Manager are full-time jobs that require relocation abroad. For these types of jobs, NGOs will pay a reasonable salary by international standards. Most aid organizations will also provide flights, visas, accommodation, transport, and insurance. Postings such as these are usually for six months to a year and you would need to resign from your medical role in your home country to take one.

The second option for doing humanitarian work as a doctor is to retain your job within your home countries health sector and do shorter deployments abroad. Many medical NGOs offer short-term humanitarian missions for doctors. These can be from a few weeks to a couple of months. Often it is possible for a doctor to use their annual leave or take time away from their home country medical jobs to undertake humanitarian work overseas. However, many of these shorter-term posting are not paid, although expenses are usually covered.

These are just two of the arrangement’s doctors can have that allow them to do humanitarian work. With a huge range of NGOs focusing on health in humanitarian settings, and large variations between working conditions for doctors in many different home countries, there are obviously many arrangements doctors can make that allow them to do overseas humanitarian work.

The humanitarian sector often urgently requires medical staff to join aid projects. If you are a qualified doctor – especially if you have training or experience in overseas work or humanitarian contexts, there are many ways for you to use your skills to help people affected by disasters, crises, and conflicts around the world.

If you want to learn more about how to do humanitarian work as a doctor, explore our list of the top online humanitarian health courses here.


Duncan is the founder of Humanitarian Careers. With over ten years experience in the aid industry across fifteen countries, Duncan set-up Humanitarian Careers to help people launch their own career in international aid.