Performing international surgical outreach missions to help the world’s most disadvantaged patients overcome the disability imposed by disease is an extremely rewarding experience. Missions are challenging, varying in their length, level of working and living conditions and the surgery performed. Despite the rigors of mission work, there has not been a mission where members of the medical team did not find the experience to be life changing.
Explore this issue:April 2010
Over the years, people interested in performing humanitarian missions ask many common questions: How do I become involved? How do I get funding? What will be expected of me on a mission? How do I get started? Do they actually help?
I have had the experience of performing humanitarian missions both in the military and in private practive. The most difficult hurdle to overcome is going on the first humanitarian mission. People want to get involved but I have found that it is difficult for us to put down our commitment to our daily practice. My advice to anyone interested in otolaryngology outreach missions is to just jump in. There are many opportunities available for otolaryngologists to perform humanitarian missions. The best place to start is the American Academy of Otolaryngology Humanitarian Web site (entnet.org/Community/public/humanitarian.cfm).
—Drew Horlbeck, MD
Very often I talk with colleagues who say they are worried they have nothing to teach in developing nations. Despite the recent debate regarding the state of health care in the U.S., we still set the standard in quality of care and technological advancements. For this reason, each of us has an opportunity to teach. We have training and experience in the most modern techniques and advances in otolaryngology.
Regardless of the mission, it will require a sacrifice of time and money. There is always an element of self-funding required to make the mission happen. However, I quickly realized the tremendous impact these missions have on the lives of the poorest people in the world. The benefits provided to local colleagues and participants are unparalleled. Personally, for the first time I felt like a doctor rather than a full-time administrator and part-time otolaryngologist.
Once on a mission you will be limited in your interactions within the host nation, and it can be a daunting task to provide care to as many people as possible on a mission with a limited budget and time. There will always be more people in desperate need of care than we are able to help. Over time, the local physicians I have had the opportunity to work with have become good friends. Together we have helped numerous patients. My partners are integral in providing follow-up care for our patients. The contacts made during missions are how I continue my efforts.
There are some concerns about humanitarian missions. One of the questions many people have is the impact these missions have over the long term, giving the element involved of performing operations and leaving patients behind. In other words, do the missions help? In order to answer this question I have collected some of this data on otology missions to several nations. Recently I reviewed some of this data, whichdemonstrated that chronic ear problems can be cured with a single procedure. The success rate was equal to that achieved in developed nations one year out from surgery.1
The ultimate goal in humanitarian work is to provide a living change in the care provided by our local colleagues so that they are able to continue to provide desperately needed care to their patients. This common goal transcends borders, politics and cultural differences.
- Horlbeck D, Boston M, Sierra B, et. al. Humanitarian otologic missions: long-term surgical results. Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2009;140(4):559-665.
Drew Horlbeck, MD, is director of neurotology at Nemours Children’s Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla.
Disclaimer: The opinions and views expressed in this op-ed are strictly those of the writer and do not represent any positions held by ENT Today, The Triological Society, sponsors or advertisers.