How Health Volunteers Overseas Works

Volunteering with HVO

As we mentioned in the last section, volunteers with the HVO are members of their medical professional associations. The HVO has a Program Department that works to recruit volunteers and place them within the program that suits their skills and interests. Once a volunteer is placed, the HVO provides training and makes arrangements. Each program's director provides specific information about things such as local customs, housing and current health conditions in the area.

HVO volunteers are highly experienced, licensed professionals who are active in private practice, a hospital practice or a university setting in either the United States or Canada. Retirees also volunteer. Volunteers need to be patient, highly adaptable, flexible and open-minded. Most programs require volunteers to stay for one month, although some are as little as two weeks and others can last up to six months. Each program may have specific requirements for volunteers in addition to the basic requirements. For example, the Physical Therapy Overseas program in Bhutan is a four-month-long program and requires licensed physical therapists with more than five years of experience.

In order to become a volunteer, professionals are encouraged to first join HVO and pay annual dues. These vary depending on the profession; doctors and dentists have a larger suggested amount, while nurses, allied health care professionals and students can donate less. There is then a volunteer profile form, which requires references, educational information and an explanation of why you want to become a volunteer. Volunteer profiles are valid for three years.

After submitting the form, potential volunteers are contacted by HVO recruiters to discuss locations. Then a program director contacts volunteers for further assessment and checks their references. Once a volunteer is improved for an assignment, he works with the recruiter to finalize the details and receives a packet of orientation materials and resources. He is also encouraged to speak with previous volunteers and do his own research so that they are fully prepared.

Volunteers can often bring their spouses and families along with them. In many cases, these family members can also volunteer. It just depends on the specific program. However, volunteers must keep in mind that they are responsible for getting to and from the program site. Some sites provide room, board and daily transportation, while volunteers are responsible for providing their own in other cases. Because the HVO is a nonprofit, most of the expenses incurred by volunteers are tax-deductible.

Past HVO volunteers often describe their experience as a two-way street -- they often feel that it's just as much of a learning experience for them as it is for the people they work with at the site. Not only have they done their part to improve the health of the local population, they've also contributed to improving medical education around the world.

For more on volunteering, try the articles below.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Health Volunteers Overseas
  • Coughlin, Richard R. "Orthopaedics Overseas celebrates 50 years of service." American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons NOW. May 2009.
  • Crenshaw, Ralph. "Doctors Across the Sea." Journal of the American Medical Association. December 14, 1984. Volume 252, Issue 22.
  • Direct Relief International
  • HVOUSA: About Us
  • HVOUSA: Program Areas
  • HVOUSA: Volunteer Toolkit
  • InterAction
  • International Health Volunteers
  • Lalani, Amina. "An MD Travels with...Health Volunteers Overseas to Uganda." Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Movie. February 2006.
  • Monsiavis, Daniel. "Journey to Maldova: Working with Health Volunteers Overseas." El Paso Magazine. December 11 2008.
  • Saldinger, Martha. "War-weary Ugandans need pediatric volunteers." AAP News. September 1995. Volume 11, issue 9.