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Ethical precepts for medical volunteerism: including local voices and values to guide RHD surgery in Rwanda
  1. Marilyn E Coors1,
  2. Thomas L Matthew2,
  3. Dayna B Matthew3
  1. 1Department of Psychiatry and Center for Bioethics and Humanities, University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, Aurora, Colorado, USA
  2. 2Department of Surgery, Heart Center of the Rockies, Longmont, Colorado, USA
  3. 3University of Colorado School of Law, Boulder, Colorado, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr Marilyn E Coors, Department of Psychiatry and Center for Bioethics and Humanities, University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, 13080 East 19th Avenue, B137, Aurora, CO 80045, USA; marilyn.coors{at}


At the invitation of the Rwandan Government, Team Heart, a team of American healthcare professionals, performs volunteer rheumatic heart disease (RHD) surgery in Rwanda every year, and confronts ethical concerns that call for cultural sensitivity. This article describes how five standard bioethical precepts are applied in practice in medical volunteerism related to RHD surgery in Rwanda. The content for the applied precepts stems from semiscripted, transcribed conversations with the authors, two Rwandan cardiologists, a Rwandan nurse and a Rwandan premedical student. The conversations revealed that the criteria for RHD surgical selection in Rwanda are analogous to the patient-selection process involving material scarcity in the USA. Rwandan notions of benefit and harm focus more attention on structural issues, such as shared benefit, national reputation and expansion of expertise, than traditional Western notions. Harm caused by inadequate patient follow-up remains a critical concern. Gender disparities regarding biological and social implications of surgical valve choices impact considerations of justice. Individual agency remains important, but not central to Rwandan concepts of justice, transparency and respect, particularly regarding women. The Rwandan understanding of standard bioethical precepts is substantively similar to the traditionally recognised interpretation with important contextual differences. The communal importance of improving the health of a small number of individuals may be underestimated in previous literature. Moreover, openness and the incorporation of Rwandan stakeholders in difficult ethical choices and long-term contributions to indigenous medical capacity appear to be valued by Rwandans. These descriptions of applied precepts are applicable to different medical missions in other emerging nations following a similar process of inclusion.

  • Clinical Ethics
  • Ethics
  • International Affairs
  • Surgery

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