Spotlight on International Volunteerism

Hand surgeon devotes career to improving orthopaedic care in resource-scarce settings
International volunteer work is an exciting opportunity to expand professional perspectives while, at the same time, improve global orthopaedic care. Just ask Divya Singh, MD, a hand surgeon from Seattle who has been volunteering internationally for nearly a decade.

"When you go to places like Rwanda, South Africa, or Myanmar, the need is so great," she said. "The problems are so big, and you really feel you're making a difference. Even small changes can have a big impact."


International volunteer work also provides Dr. Singh the opportunity to visit architectural sites in other countries. Shwedagon is the oldest and most sacred of Myanmar's pagodas. Its 110-meter gold- and jewel-encrusted stupa is the Crown of Burma.
Courtesy of Divya Singh, MD

Dr. Singh began volunteering in 2009 when she participated in a medical mission to Rwanda. In 2011, she became a member of Health Volunteers Overseas (HVO)—a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving global health through education. That same year, she traveled to South Africa for 3 weeks. There she shared her knowledge of orthopaedics and hand surgery with local providers, helping them improve their skills and empowering them to provide better patient care.

In 2013, on another HVO assignment, Dr. Singh traveled to Yangon, Myanmar, where she worked with a local orthopaedic trauma team at Yangon General Hospital.

"My role was to ask probing questions, to further discuss diagnostic and treatment issues, and to encourage more critical thinking among the local surgeons," said Dr. Singh. "There is no shortage of opportunities at the hospital, both for teaching the residents and for helping with surgeries." 

As an HVO volunteer, Dr. Singh never performs a surgical case by herself. Instead, she supervises a resident or assists an attending surgeon. She also ensures that patients receive appropriate follow-up after she leaves, thus creating a more sustainable model for overseas medical work.

Upon completion of her assignment in Yangon, Dr. Singh became director for HVO's training project in Myanmar. In this role, she oversees volunteer activities and maintains contact with the site to ensure HVO volunteers meet the training needs of local staff. She remains in contact with the on-site staff and residents she trained, and she returned to the site in 2016.

"I am energized by the enthusiasm and kindness of the local doctors, both attending (physicians) and residents," Dr. Singh reported in her post-trip survey. "After just 3 years, I can see the progress being made."

In addition to her role as project director, Dr. Singh serves on the board of directors of Orthopaedics Overseas—a division of HVO. She has also completed volunteer work in Malawi. Dr. Singh recommends HVO to physicians interested in international volunteering, citing the sustainability of the organization's projects.

In particular, she notes that HVO's project site in Myanmar is an excellent volunteer opportunity for subspecialists. She encourages interested physicians to pursue international volunteer opportunities sooner rather than later.

"I think a lot of doctors believe they're going to volunteer when they are older or retired. I didn't want to wait till then because you never know what's going to happen," she explained. "None of us is here very long. You have to take your opportunities when you can." 

A career focused on international work
Dr. Singh has found her trips abroad so personally and professionally satisfying that she resigned from private practice in 2016 to focus on international work.

"In American medicine, you spend so much time worrying about things that aren't even medical. Hours are spent doing paperwork—charting, billing, coding, worrying about revenue, regulations, and malpractice," she added. "Volunteering internationally allows you to focus on the real reason you got into medicine—to take care of people. Not only does it give you the opportunity to appreciate different cultures, but also to realize that as doctors we are basically all the same. We all want to be great surgeons. We all want to take care of patients. We all want to do the best that we can."

International volunteer work has allowed Dr. Singh to combine her love of travel with her profession. "It's an amazing world out there. We shouldn't cut ourselves off from it; we need to take advantage of opportunities to experience it," she said.

HVO has many short-term volunteer opportunities including projects in Bhutan, Bolivia, China, Costa Rica, Ghana, Malawi, Myanmar, Nicaragua, the Philippines, St. Lucia, Tanzania, and Uganda for active and retired orthopaedic surgeons seeking opportunities to improve global orthopaedic care.

HVO volunteers provide education, training, and professional development opportunities to their in-country counterparts, improving the quality and availability of health care by empowering local providers. Assignments generally last 2 to 4 weeks, and volunteers are placed throughout the year.

For more information, visit www.hvousa.org

Katie McMullen is communications manager, Health Volunteers Overseas.

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