In December of 1984, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an article by Dr. Ralph Crawshaw, a physician in private practice in Portland, Oregon. In “Doctors Across the Sea,” Dr.Crawshaw called for the establishment of a organization that could facilitate international medical professional outreach and exchange.
In this article, Dr. Crawshaw cited the “enviable record of accomplishment” of Orthopaedics Overseas, “a graphic example of overseas’ medical needs being met without government involvement, at minimum cost, with maximum return.”
He concluded by stating:
You, as a concerned individual physician, can make a substantial difference to your colleagues in developing countries. If you genuinely wish to know how physicians in distant lands practice their brand of your mutual branch of clinical medicine, you can find out in understandable, personal terms. In fact, you may learn a great deal about the practical problems of resource allocation, the prudent use of high technology, and the capacity of human beings to work through and survive difficult complications without heroic medical intervention. Yours is the hand that may reach across international boundaries, to help others in the practice of medicine, certainly to help yourself. What it takes to make the difference is the will to act out of your curiosity, humanity, and concern.”
Much has changed in the world in the intervening years. Nonetheless, the sentiments expressed by Dr. Crawshaw are as true today as in 1984. This article is an important part of HVO’s history – it sounded the call for action and provided a road map by suggesting the involvement of medical societies. In the spring of 1986, the Orthopaedics Overseas Board of Directors, at the urging of Dr. Garry Hough and Dr. James Cobey, approved a motion to become the founding division of the newly incorporated Health Volunteers Overseas.
HVO officially opened for business on August 1, 1986. Incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in the District of Columbia, HVO’s mission was to improve the availability and quality of health care in developing countries through the training and education of local health care providers. With an annual budget of less than $50,000 and one staff person, HVO moved quickly to identify partners to support this nascent organization. Early partners included the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons, the American College of Physicians, and the American Dental Association.
More than thirty years later, HVO’s mission remains focused on the education, training and professional support of health care providers in resource-poor environments. HVO has grown significantly over the years. In 2017, HVO fielded volunteers at 97 project sites in 25 countries, and volunteers have completed more than 11,000 assignments since the organization began. Today, HVO has $3 million in net assets, with approximately 82 percent of all expenses going directly to program support. Dues, sponsorships, and individual donations make up the bulk of HVO’s support.
A volunteer Board of Directors governs the organization; these volunteers represent a diverse background of experiences and professions. Volunteer health care professionals serve in a variety of leadership positions, including project directors and steering committee members, while a staff of 15 manages the day-to-day operations of the organization and its extensive portfolio of programs and projects.