In the last several months, the world’s health care systems have significantly been tested, as the new coronavirus spread swiftly across the globe, including a shortage of staff. But many have been sounding the alarm on an impending deficit of medical personnel for years, long before COVID-19 was a known disease. In 2017, a medical journal estimated that only half of the world’s countries meet the basic levels required for to deliver quality health care. And before that, in 2013, the World Health Organization estimated that the deficit of health care staff by 2030 would surpass 18 million – a deficit that disproportionately affects developing countries.

One organization that has focused on the critical need to cultivate the global medical field is Health Volunteers Overseas. Their mission focuses on improving the availability and education of health care staff in countries where this vital resource is scarce. With the belief in working together, HVO has made great strides in their mission, training and mentoring more than 3,000 individuals each year – which translates to support for tens of thousands of lives around the world. Through a global community, HVO bridges the connection between host countries, local health care staff, professional medical volunteers and other organizations, creating partnerships that result in quality health care for all.

HVO internal medicine volunteer with students at Kabale University School of Medicine in Kabale, Uganda.

As an organization whose mission is to build partnerships for the world’s most vulnerable, Global Impact is privileged to have the founder and executive director of HVO as our Board Vice Chair. Growing up as a third-culture kid, Nancy Kelly has been witness to the ways of life in other countries, including those with great needs. Nancy’s awareness and appreciation of other cultures extended far beyond her childhood. Even prior to starting HVO, her career path included working for the National Council for International Health and serving as a maternal child health worker with the Peace Corps in the Republic of Korea.

Nancy Kelly

During this time of heightened health care needs around the world, we are thankful that Nancy graciously took some time to share her perspective on the changes in the industry during her tenure with HVO, effects of the pandemic on HVO’s mission and programming, and how you can support their work. Here’s what she had to say.

Since HVO’s founding, what changes have you seen during your time leading the organization?
Since HVO was founded, nearly 34 years ago, there have been a number of changes in the world. HVO started with a staff of two and a handful of projects, primarily in orthopaedics. Today, our team of 13 provides support to 102 projects in 17 specialties across 22 countries!

There have been two major changes that have significantly impacted HVO’s work in the field – first, the changing nature of prevalent health care conditions in the countries where we work; second – the revolutionary growth in technology.

Changing medical conditions
Over the past 30 years, we have seen a dramatic change in the diseases and conditions our volunteers face when on assignment. Thirty years ago, for example, orthopaedic volunteers were addressing issues related to polio and its aftereffects. Now they are faced with an epidemic of road traffic accidents and (almost never) see polio patients. Ironically, diseases that are common in the U.S. (hypertension, diabetes, heart disease) are now making an appearance in the countries where we work.

Advancing technology
Another major change has been the growth of technology. Our initial contact with project sites was via aerogram letters, before we moved on to faxes. Decisions took longer because communications were slower. We rarely interacted with volunteers during their assignment given the slowness and expense of communications. The introduction of cell phones, email, texting and applications, such as WhatsApp and Skype, mean that our communications now are in real time.

Technology has also changed our programming. Now, in addition to fielding volunteers at project sites, there are additional ways we can provide training with virtual volunteerism. In fact, this e-volunteering option serves to reinforce the work of our in-person volunteers and results in stronger programs. All of our sites have access to the internet, and everyone we work with has a cell phone. The implications of this connectivity are staggering when you consider the situation just two or three decades ago. Now volunteers can keep in touch with their colleagues from the project when they return home.

What effects has the COVID-19 pandemic had on the work of HVO? What steps are being taken to maintain programming and adjust your approach to provide health services in underserved countries?
Sadly, out of concern for the impact that the disease might have on our colleagues abroad and their ability to continue hosting volunteers, we made the difficult decision to suspend placement of volunteers at all of our projects through August. We have continued to support our colleagues in the field, however.

Over the past couple of years, we have been slowly but surely exploring the development of e volunteering options as a means of augmenting the teaching by the ‘boots on the ground’ volunteer. COVID-19 has hastened that pivot and we are now expanding our e-volunteering opportunities. For example, one site holds monthly tumor board discussions with colleagues in the U.S. and U.K.; another site is focused on sharing research papers for review; another colleague continued her learning by sharing dermatopathology slides. All of this is done at a distance, thanks to the internet. This ability to keep the conversations and learning going has really made a difference in our programs.

Several of our long-term volunteers have expressed concern that we at HVO might move beyond the field placement of volunteers once the COVID-19 situation mitigates. I don’t think this will ever happen because the insights and relationships that volunteers develop while working on-site are invaluable. But I do think that once we arrive in a post-COVID-19 world, our e-volunteering initiative will continue and will thrive. There are certain types of interactions that are ideally suited for the weekly one-hour meeting or an occasional two-hour seminar, and we have learned how to do this effectively.

How is HVO responding to support its overseas partners during the pandemic?
Early on, we reached out to all our project sites, and urged them to let us know how we could provide support during this crisis. We are responding to those needs as best we can.

We were asked for reliable information about COVID-19, so we set up a list of trusted resources on our website. We knew there was a risk of rumors and misinformation spreading, so we wanted to make sure there was a place where our project colleagues could find reliable, trusted information.

Some projects are now offering online lectures and discussions. Others are focusing, for now, on things that can be done through distance learning and mentoring, such as curriculum development, research review, etc.

We have heard from volunteers that they are eager to start returning to project sites, so we are setting up assignments for next year. We will be guided by science, the spread of the disease, and the capacity and willingness of our sites to welcome volunteers.

How can our readers support HVO during this time and over the coming months?
Nonprofits of all sizes have been greatly impacted by the economic shutdown resulting from COVID-19. At HVO, we have taken steps to assure the prudent management of our financial resources during this challenging time. As we move into our new ‘normal,’ I hope that donors will once again feel the urge to open their wallets – every gift counts!

Contributions to HVO will ensure that our work can adapt to any new realities caused by the pandemic, and that we can move forward to realize our vision of a world where all people have access to high quality health care delivered by local health care professionals.