The History of Healthcare Missions

Have you ever wondered about the origins of modern medical missions? It began with Peter Parker, an American physician, in 1834. Parker was the first modern-day full-time medical missionary to China and was one of the very few foreigners to get invited inland. Foreigners were not allowed to mingle with Chinese people.

In 1835 Parker opened a hospital in Canton. More than 2000 Chinese patients were treated in the first year alone. Parker then went to the University of Edinburgh and shared how missionaries could get into China: through healthcare. This started a movement. Edinburgh became a hotbed of modern global healthcare missions. Groups like Sudan Inland Mission (today’s Serving in Mission) sprang up to use healthcare professionals to access previously unreached areas. In 1841, a group of doctors formed the Edinburgh Medical Missionary Society to send medical aid into the world.

The modern medical missions movement was born. Evangelism grew. Moving into the twentieth-century healthcare continued to play a role in missions, but it changed. Healthcare professionals were no longer the chief missionaries; they supported teams of individuals. Healthcare missionaries got access into countries and then other missionaries followed behind.

From 1900 to the late 1950s and early 1960s medical missions experienced a time of infrastructure building. It was a period of incredible growth wherein one individual’s lifetime he or she could hack into a jungle, build a hut that would become a clinic that would one day grow into a hospital and then into a teaching institution. In one generation a teaching hospital could emerge where nothing had been before. Mission hospitals and clinics sprang up throughout the world. According to Christian Medical and Dental Associations (CMDA), 60 percent of developing nations’ healthcare was delivered by Catholic and protestant missionaries. Missionaries earned the right to speak into people’s lives through healthcare.

The challenge began in the mid-1960s to early 1970s when the modern evangelical movement of today began. Donors who were responsible for funding these initiatives began asking for specific numbers. They wanted to know how many people were “getting saved.” Donors wanted to see more hard data for faith conversions. Medical missions began being viewed as a “mercy ministry” not an “evangelistic ministry.” Funding dried up.

Throughout the 1980s until the mid 2000s, with no financial backing by donors, the medical missions infrastructure collapsed. Mission sending organizations could no longer support running hospitals, supplying staff, maintaining expensive equipment and drugs. Hospitals were closed, sold, or nationalized.

Around 2005 a change began to occur. Young people emerging from medical school had an increased interest in serving abroad. They were engaged globally. Community health evangelism came into the spotlight. In 2010 the World Health Organization set global standards. The Gates Foundation and other organizations began to step up in a major way to influence outcomes. At the same time, the world became more closed to western missionaries. It became more difficult and more dangerous.

Now mission sending organizations are reporting that half of the world’s nations will not issue a missionary visa. The top four professional visas that have been issued are education, sports, business, and healthcare.

Healthcare missions has a rich and storied history, but it’s far from over. To learn about the current climate and future outlook of healthcare missions, download MedSend CEO Rick Allen’s paper, Global Healthcare Transformation, Bringing Hope to the Unreached and Underserved Around the World Through Healthcare Missions.

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