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How to ‘Grow 30 More’? Building a Sustainable Health Workforce in Resource-Scarce Countries

The following post was written by Gael O’Sullivan, MBA. Ms. O’Sullivan is a social and behavioral change expert with extensive experience in the global health sector. The post reflects on her experience as an attendee at HVO’s 30th Anniversary Symposium. To learn more about the HVO 30th Anniversary Symposium, read the latest Volunteer Connection.  

On August 1, 1986, Health Volunteers Overseas (HVO) opened its doors in Washington, D.C. Born from a successful and sustainable model created 20 years earlier by its founding division, Othopaedics Overseas (OO), HVO’s mission focused on improving global health through the education of health workers in resource-scarce countries. It was not a small task, particularly with an annual budget of less than $50,000 and a single staff person.

Thirty years later, the organization has grown, but its mission remains the same. On April 28, 2017, HVO gathered key stakeholders for a symposium at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health to reflect on how far the organization has come – and where it will go next to ‘Grow 30 More.’

A key discussion point of the Symposium focused on why HVO projects have succeeded in the past. To-date, HVO volunteers have completed more than 10,600 assignments. In 2016 alone, volunteers in 18 program areas provided training and professional development opportunities to nearly 4,000 health professionals at 92 project sites in 28 countries around the world.

The chair of the HVO Board of Directors, Jody Olsen, MSW, PhD, credits the strong partnerships HVO has built with host governments and institutions, local health care professionals, U.S.-based professional associations and other organizations dedicated to advancing its educational mission.  “We are the model for sharing, learning and giving. Key to our success has been partnering with professional medical societies that link providers to HVO programs,” Olsen stated at the symposium.

In addition to HVO’s commitment to partnerships, its success can be tied to its focus on sustainable improvement. Annette Galassi, RN, MA, OCN – an oncology nurse who spent most of her career working with the National Cancer Institute – attended HVO’s 30th anniversary symposium and spoke of the appeal of the HVO model to a health professional seeking to volunteer. She commented that the organization’s focus on building the skills of local providers to create sustainable change has great appeal and contrasts with other nonprofits that facilitate medical missions focused on the direct provision of care, but do little to empower the local health workforce.  In a panel discussion at the HVO Symposium, Galassi urged those interested in volunteering overseas to ask themselves if they are interested in volunteerism or “voluntourism.”

During that same panel, Galassi shared another insight related to another discussion point of the HVO symposium: how HVO can expand its work to meet its mission in the coming years.  Ms. Galassi pointed to the growing burden of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in many of the countries where HVO works. While global health and development organizations have made significant progress in the fight against infectious diseases such as malaria and HIV/AIDS, many low- and middle-income countries lack the infrastructure and human resources to combat NCDs such as cancer. Health systems in these countries frequently lack prevention, screening, diagnosis and treatment protocols, as well as proper equipment, laboratory systems, education and training for the local health workforce. “HVO is uniquely poised to help fill these large gaps,” according to Galassi.

In her six years as an HVO volunteer, Galassi has seen the American Society of Clinical Oncology, the Oncology Nursing Society, the Society of Surgical Oncology, and the Society of Gynecologic Oncology partner with HVO. She feels that this is a major testament to HVO’s ability to meet the enormous education and training needs of the cancer care workforce in resource-scarce countries through its short-term volunteer model. HVO continues to expand its focus to include projects that address the growing burden of NCDs.

Another HVO Symposium attendee, Louise Myers, a former senior hospital administrator at The George Washington University Medical Center, also spoke to HVO’s expanding focus. Ms. Myers volunteered with HVO at the National Referral Hospital in Thimphu, Bhutan for a project to assess the feasibility of expanding HVO’s mission to include strengthening hospital management.  After extensive touring of the facility, observation of systems and department operations, and interviews with heads of departments, a number of potential HVO volunteer assignments were identified.  Each requires the successful recruitment of a specialist able to bring the expertise necessary for guiding change in systems and procedures.

“I had free reign of the hospital to build on an impressive management survey that had previously been done and which identified many areas for management improvement,” Myers explained. “The approach for improving hospital operations has to be customized for each facility based on the management capabilities and technical needs of the executive and department management teams.”

As Galassi considers what lies ahead for HVO in the coming decades, she notes, “HVO is at an inflection point. Their programs have been very successful to-date, and now it’s time to consider whether HVO can become a player on a higher level to change the health system upstream and harness the potential of modern technology to scale health improvements for even better results.” If the 30-year track record of this organization and its remarkable core of dedicated volunteers and international trainees is any indication, HVO is up to the challenge.

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