Published 10/1/2007
Germaine R. Fritz, DO

Don’t let these myths keep you from an adventure

Debunking the top 8 myths about volunteering abroad

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to recruiting overseas volunteers is overcoming the many myths that surround the assignment. Too often, these myths prevent doctors from actually investigating opportunities to travel abroad, make a contribution to global health, and have a wonderful adventure all at the same time.

In my trips with Orthopaedics Overseas, a division of Health Volunteers Overseas (HVO), I’ve had wonderful experiences—learning much, making new friends, broadening my understanding of the world, having a lot of fun, and, hopefully, being part of the solution.

To help separate fact from fiction, here are eight of the most widespread myths I’ve encountered over the years, and the real truth behind them.

“Spouses can’t go—there isn’t anything for them to do.”
The fact is that many spouses (both wives and husbands!) do go. (See “Pack your bags,” page 42.) They may not have medical knowledge, but if they wish to make a contribution, many opportunities are available. Spouses may teach English, organize central supply, work at a local school, or teach computer skills.

Because each site has different needs and opportunities, Orthopaedics Overseas can assist you and your spouse in finding the correct match for you. Many couples find it rewarding to spend time and work with each other in nontraditional ways—perhaps seeing a side of the other that they had never witnessed or appreciated before. In addition, you can spend your free time exploring parts of the world and meeting people you would otherwise not have a chance to get to know.

If you’d like, HVO can make arrangements for you to speak with other physicians and their spouses about specific sites and experiences you may be interested in pursuing.

“My children won’t have anything to do.”
Depending on the age of your children, their experiences and daily life will vary. Some older children may be able to assist in the hospital setting or in schools, while younger children may attend school, becoming immersed in a different cultural life experience with local children and their families. Imagine what an eye-opening experience this could be for your children, certainly one they will never forget.

“It’s not safe for me (or my family).”
Certainly, common sense and precaution prevail when it comes to safety in traveling. HVO makes every effort to assess the safety of each site and to ensure safe experiences for volunteers. HVO will close programs based on U.S. State Department Travel Warnings.

“I don’t speak [insert language here], so I won’t be able to communicate.”
All program sites have people on-site who can translate or speak English. Most of the younger healthcare professionals in these countries speak and understand English, and use English texts for medical training. Of course, learning some of the local language is always helpful and demonstrates some interest, on your part, in the local culture.

“I can’t take the time away from my practice.”
You can find a way to make this work. Some assignments require only a 2-week commitment. Or, if you want to volunteer at a site that requires a 1-month commitment, start planning now. Many volunteers schedule their trips 18 to 36 months in advance.

“I’m only a general orthopaedist (or subspecialist). I won’t be useful.”
Each location has its own needs and offers different opportunities for volunteers. Every effort is made to find the right fit for your talents and goals, as well as the needs and aspirations of the site.

Many general orthopaedists are needed throughout the world, and each subspecialist has something to offer every project site. Through previsit planning—such as arranging for certain patients or a specific pathology to be seen during your visit—HVO can put your talents and resources to best use as well as optimize growth opportunities for the site.

Although many program sites lack resources, they still strive to be the best they can be, and potential for future growth is important to them as well. At one site, for example, a shoulder specialist provided an intensive shoulder arthroscopy lab, with lectures and a practical hands-on course over many days.

“I don’t have any experience teaching. I don’t have lectures prepared. I won’t be useful.”
We all teach and learn in a variety of ways. Formal lectures are not required if your teaching style is better suited to bedside teaching—using stories and past cases. Each of our life experiences offers us lessons to share and to learn. Although formal lectures may be more appropriate in some situations, you don’t have to prepare them yourself. Orthopaedics Overseas has access to a variety of resources from the AAOS, the American Society for Surgery of the Hand, and the Orthopaedic Trauma Association that you can use.

Reviewing cases and X-rays with on-site staff is another way to impart knowledge—explaining your method of determining treatment and discussing various treatment options. Staff physicians and those in training are grateful for whatever you can teach and share. You will be appreciated! You will return home feeling renewed and energized—both personally and professionally.

“It is too costly for me to go.”
Cost is handled by the individual physician, and trips usually run between $1,000 and $3,000. The primary costs are airfare and housing, although some sites provide lodging for free and others at a nominal charge. The cost varies, of course, according to length of stay. Because the expenses are acknowledged as a charitable contribution through Orthopaedics Overseas, a person with an average tax bracket of 35 percent is “out of pocket” just $650 for every $1,000 spent.

Quite frankly, that $650 or $1,300 per trip is without a doubt one of the best investments I’ve made in my life. What a return for my money! I’ve stayed in fancy places with gourmet food and wonderful tourist attractions, but I’ve never felt as good as when I return home from my Orthopaedics Overseas trips. My photographs are the “tangibles” I take home, but the rest—the emotional experience; the chance to make a difference, if only to a small few; the chance to teach and change the future; and the opportunity to experience another culture in a way that’s rarely possible on a vacation—well, that is just priceless!

Volunteer today
So what is stopping you? For more information on volunteering with Orthopaedics Overseas, visit the HVO web site at
http://www.hvousa.org or call 202-296-0928.

Germaine R. Fritz, DO, is an associate member of the AAOS who sits on the Orthopaedics Overseas’ board of directors.