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How Health Volunteers Overseas Works

Local health care providers at the Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital in Thimphu, Bhutan.
Local health care providers at the Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital in Thimphu, Bhutan.
Photo courtesy Jim Matiko

In December 1984, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published an article by an Oregon-based doctor named Ralph Crenshaw. In the article, titled "Doctors Across the Sea," Dr. Crenshaw implored his colleagues in the United States to consider how they could "make a substantial difference in medical care throughout the world" by sharing their knowledge with physicians in other countries [source: JAMA]. At the time, neither the U.S. government nor American doctors were known to have a strong interest in international medical education. Aspiring foreign medical students wanted to be educated and trained in the United States, but immigration laws were strict because of fears that the American-trained doctors would stay -- and possibly outnumber American-born doctors -- rather than returning to their home countries.

Many developing countries don't have the funds or facilities to train enough indigenous doctors, which often results in a huge doctor-to-patient ratio and means that many people go without any kind of treatment. In 2006, for example, Africa had a shortage of 1 million health care providers [source: HVOUSA]. And while charities exist to provide medical aid during disasters or times of war, finding ongoing care can still be a problem. So Crenshaw was proposing something unique: Instead of just spending their time in developing countries treating patients, doctors could train local medical personnel. Often, patients -- and foreign governments -- can be suspicious of American doctors. Indigenous doctors could better meet the needs of the local population.

This concept of "give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day; teach a man to fish, he'll eat for a lifetime" was the impetus for the 1986 creation of Health Volunteers Overseas (HVO), a nonprofit, privately funded organization of doctors, dentists, nurses, surgeons and physical therapists. Prior to the founding of HVO, Orthopedics Overseas, a group of orthopedic surgeons, had formed in 1959 to train doctors in countries such as the Dominican Republic and Honduras. Crenshaw stated that they had "trained enough physicians in Indonesia for the local medical school to now have an independent orthopedic surgery department" [source: JAMA]. Orthopedics Overseas served as a model for HVO and now functions as one of the organization's 13 different divisions.

In this article, we'll learn about HVO's mission and organization, who participates, and what it's like to be a volunteer.