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Volunteer Spotlight: Robert Hoffman, MD is Hooked on Volunteering Overseas

2018 Golden Apple Award honoree Robert Hoffman, MD already had some international medical volunteer experience under his belt when he first learned about HVO during the 2006 American Society for Surgery of the Hand (ASSH) Annual Meeting. He was intrigued by the opportunities HVO offered—specifically, the opportunity to volunteer abroad for a full month and the opportunity to volunteer in Bhutan, a country he had always wanted to visit. Unfortunately, he was not the only prospective volunteer interested in what HVO had to offer.

“At that time, the wait was close to three years because [Bhutan] was such a popular site,” he recalls.

Dr. Hoffman added his name to the waitlist, and a few short months later—rather than the years he expected—he found himself on a plane to Bhutan after another volunteer was unexpectedly unable to complete his assignment.

“It was really a life changing assignment … I got hooked after that first trip both on volunteerism and on Bhutan.”

In contrast to his previous volunteer experiences, where he traveled with a team of volunteer health care providers that brought all their own equipment and focused on provision of care, Dr. Hoffman noted the goal of HVO’s education-based volunteer model was to fit into the local system rather than supplement that system with outside resources.

“Both experiences were enjoyable,” says Dr. Hoffman who continues to volunteer with Operation Rainbow and Doctors Without Borders, in addition to his work with HVO, “but the HVO experience really lets you get into the culture and environment of a country.”

During his HVO assignments, Dr. Hoffman provides education and mentorship to his colleagues and those in-training at Bhutan’s Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital (JDWNRH). As a result of his efforts, both as a volunteer and, since 2010, as project director—ensuring continuity in teaching from one HVO volunteer to the next—Dr. Hoffman has watched the orthopaedic staff at JDWNRH grow tremendously in terms of their skills and confidence.

“I have seen very gratifying improvements as the country develops and more orthopaedic surgeons are trained.”

In particular, Dr. Hoffman is struck by the change in the orthopaedic technicians trained at JDWNRH. He recalls that the first class of technicians he taught was extremely shy, to the point of appearing embarrassed to participate in classes. Now, when he returns to the hospital he sees many of these same technicians. They have developed into experienced, confident and vital members of the hospital staff.

“It really [is] quite gratifying to see the efforts we put in to train them … really paid off.”

Dr. Hoffman has witnessed similar professional development among the orthopaedic attendings he has worked alongside and mentored since his first HVO assignment. In addition, the nature and scope of the JDWNRH orthopeadic training program has evolved.

“The program has changed dramatically in that there is no longer a program to train orthopaedic technicians, but they have their own residency and internship program … so it is a much higher level of teaching at this point.”

Before the launch of the JDWNRH residency program, aspiring orthopaedic surgeons had to complete their training in Bangkok, resulting in a significant language barrier that prevented many from pursuing this career path. Now, with an in-country residency program in place, more providers can be trained, leading to greater availability of orthopaedic care.

In addition to supporting the expansion of Bhutan’s orthopaedic workforce, Dr. Hoffman has contributed to the professional development of multiple practicing orthopaedic surgeons and other Bhutanese health care providers.

Dr. Hoffman regularly corresponds via email with colleagues in Bhutan with whom he has established lasting friendships. He helped facilitate visits to the U.S. for two orthopaedic attendings from JDWNRH and an emergency room nurse from the Eastern Regional Referral Hospital in Mongar to complete coursework and pursue informal educational opportunities, such as shadowing providers at U.S. hospitals.

“It has really been a gratifying personal experience getting to know people on an ongoing basis and returning to a country more than once or twice,” Dr. Hoffman reflects. “It makes it much easier to develop a long-standing friendship.”

Know an individual who, like Dr. Hoffman, has made an exceptional contribution to HVO’s mission and vision? Nominate them today to receive the 2019 HVO Golden Apple Award. Nominations are due Friday, February 22. Read our profiles of other 2018 Golden Apple honorees by visiting the “Health Worker Story” category on the HVO blog.

Are you an early career hand surgeon or trainee interested in following in Dr. Hoffman’s footsteps? We are now accepting applications for the American Society for Surgery of the Hand-HVO Young Surgeon Traveling Fellowship! Senior residents, fellows, and surgeons within three years of completing their fellowship are eligible to apply to spend two to four weeks teaching at an HVO project site. Learn more on our Fellowships & Funding page.

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