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William Gelfand Guest Speaker on Sep 30, 2019 at Malott Hall.

October 7, 2019

MEDLIFE Founder Dr. Nicholas Ellis talks Voluntourism and Social Justice

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Founder of MEDLIFE Dr. Nicholas Ellis delivered a lecture Sept. 30 his career in global health and the intersection of global health and the social determinants of health. Hosted by Cornell MEDLIFE and Phi Delta Epsilon, Ellis used personal anecdotes to inspire an audience of students with an interest in healthcare: “I want you to think about how to address larger systems through listening to people.”

MEDLIFE is an organization dedicated to providing equitable healthcare globally. The organization aims to address the gaps in healthcare infrastructure by partnering with local doctors, setting up mobile clinics and empowering students through fundraising and service learning trips.

“Our mission is to build a worldwide movement of empowering the poor in their fight to equal access to healthcare, education and a safe home. The vision being a world free of the constraints of poverty,” Ellis said.

As an undergrad, Ellis studied international development at McGill University and attended medical missions to Ecuador, where he witnessed “how poorly these medical missions were done by these organizations,” he said.

According to Ellis, on these short term missions, American doctors typically required the use of a translator, which introduced a linguistic barrier to care. Additionally, foreign doctors lacked an awareness of the local medical infrastructure. “The end result was that you would go down with good intentions and not be able to take care of sick people,” Ellis said.

Based on his prior experiences, Ellis structured MEDLIFE with the goal of transitioning away from the traditional methods of global health organizations. For example, rather than relying on foreign doctors, MEDLIFE focused its efforts on local doctors. These local doctors are better versed in the local language, cultural norms and existing medical infrastructure.

While MEDLIFE focuses on three distinct sectors: medicine, education and development, they also put a large focus on philanthropy. “The entire endeavor is about taking away people’s pain and making the world a better place. There is nothing greater than that. It’s a true honor to be able to do that.” Ellis said.

When asked about his motivation in beginning a career in global health, Ellis addressed the value he saw in being a doctor: “You have to remember what an honor it is to take care of sick people and be dedicated to something ultimately that serves humanity and makes humanity a stronger thing.”

Ellis also emphasized the distinction between voluntourism and genuine aid. Recently, the concept of voluntourism has fallen victim to scrutiny, as many question who benefits from this act: the participants or those being given aid.

To remedy this disconnect in values, Ellis stressed the importance of communicating with local doctors they are working with to ensure their concerns are addressed.

“You have to ask people that are actually there if they care about that issue,” Ellis said. Often, he has found that the perceived issues of communities and the actual concerns of those people are not the same.

In his final remarks to the audience, Ellis stressed the importance of following a career path that students have some personal affinity toward, as “all of us have certain drivers in our lives and as you go through certain things resonate with you.”

“There are certain standards: regardless of whether you live in a slum of Peru or Maine or Texas, you are a human being, and you deserve certain benefits,” Ellis said.