A Role for Short-term Volunteers in Global Health
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Abstract: Properly trained volunteers with interests and motivations that match the needs of settings with limited resources help meet the global shortage of well-trained healthcare workers. Health Volunteers Overseas (HVO) paves the way for successful volunteering experiences that help improve healthcare outcomes and enrich volunteers’ lives.
Address correspondence to:
Nancy Kelly, MHS
Health Volunteers Overseas
1900 L Street, NW #310
Washington, DC 20036
In 2006, the theme of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) annual report was Working Together for Health. As Lee Jong-wook, the late Director-General of WHO, stated in his opening message about the chronic shortage of well-trained healthcare workers:
“The shortage is global, but most acutely felt in the countries that need them most. For a variety of reasons, such as migration, illness or death of health workers, countries are unable to educate and sustain the health workforce that would improve people’s chances of survival and their well being.”
The last decade has been characterized by a dramatic increase in interest and resources in global health—the Gates Foundation and the funding of PEPFAR are two excellent examples.1 To a large extent, this heightened awareness has been driven by the grim realities of the HIV-AIDS pandemic which has decimated families, villages, and countries all around the world. The advent of SARS and the flu pandemic have also contributed to growing awareness that the Earth is a small planet where diseases can be transmitted quickly with potentially devastating outcomes.
Increasingly, healthcare policy experts have come to realize that while there are financial resources and technologies available to address many health challenges, the health systems found in countries around the world are weak and are not able to deliver the services that are needed. A WHO Report states that a shortage of human resources has replaced financial issues as the most significant obstacle to implementing national treatment plans.2
Health systems in developing countries are chronically under-funded and under-staffed. There are numerous barriers to access with poverty being perhaps the most significant recurring barrier across all countries. In some countries the per capita expenditure on health may be less than $10 annually. Health professionals and facilities tend to be concentrated in major cities with few, if any, services available to the rural population.
Investment in Education—A Possible Role for Short-term Volunteers
Investment in the education and training of local healthcare professionals is vital to ensure that healthcare delivery systems in developing nations are able to handle the diverse needs of local communities.3 Indeed, a healthy and productive population is a prerequisite for economic development and opportunities for advancement both at the societal and the individual level.
By definition, educational programs take a long view of human development. The introduction and assimilation of new information, techniques, and clinical concepts takes time. New approaches and ways of thinking about a disease pattern or long established clinical practice often require multiple pedagogical approaches including modifications of existing curricula, teacher training, and the provision of updated educational materials.
Given the long-term nature of educational programs, can short-term volunteers play an effective role in such programs?
1. Garrett L. The challenge of global health. Foreign Affairs. 2007:86:1.
2. WHO (World Health Organization). World Health Report 2006: Working Together for Health. Geneva, Switzerland.
3. The Joint Learning Initiative. Human Resources for Health: Overcoming the Crisis. Cambridge, MA; Harvard University Press: 2004.
4. Health Volunteers Overseas. Available at: http://www.hvousa.org.