O&P Abroad: The Culture Shock

There are many obstacles a person will face when traveling overseas to assist with O&P humanitarian efforts. Practitioners who decide to participate in these trips will have to contemplate questions about what supplies are needed, where items can be fabricated and learning the language before departing. But as a profession, we seldom consider the cultural differences of the society we are trying to assist.

With each trip, we leave knowing we have built a better cultural understanding of O&P abroad. Accepting cultural differences will only make us better practitioners.

Orthotists and prosthetists from the United States can sometimes have “white coat syndrome.” This is the idea that being U.S. trained is the best way, and is therefore educationally superior to the rest of the world. This thought process may be perceived negatively when working in another country and could build cultural walls.

  During an April FOOT trip to Guatemala, Scanio, O&P technician Mike Hanson and colleagues helped more than 25 children in need of orthotics.
  During an April FOOT trip to Guatemala, Scanio, O&P technician Mike Hanson and colleagues helped more than 25 children in need of orthotics.
  Image: Dino M. Scanio/FOOT

It is best to take a look at the community you are helping and what can be done to help perpetuate the local wealth. Using local resources is one way to accomplish this. The less the community depends on outside help, the stronger and healthier they will become. By using local supplies, educational standards and concepts, you will be more successful with assisting them in caring for their own community. In other words, do not show them how to fabricate AFOs using technology and supplies available in the United States. Instead, teach them how to fabricate using their own supplies and increase their existing base of knowledge.

People learn more effectively from what they think, feel, see and do. Help them understand what they already know more clearly and they will become more motivated.

As a professional you should try to speak the language as this will reflect that you are trying to learn as well.

Some cultures have certain traditions in their daily routine that we may not understand. In Latin America, it is common to have designated break times during the day. No matter how busy you are, you should stop and participate with the locals. When traveling abroad, we want to work nonstop so that everyone is helped, but failure to respect the country’s work culture can be perceived as offensive.

The most critical aspect of O&P abroad is education. If those traveling overseas to help others do not leave a sustained level of education, then the locals will be unable to help themselves. Organizations that travel abroad and spend their time in “factory mode” do no good to that society. They have taught no one how to provide continued O&P care when they leave. This may potentially leave the local community in worse shape than before.

Teaching abroad can present its own challenges so teach as they speak, simplify where needed, demonstrate continually and have return demonstrations confirm their level of understanding. Keeping your patient volume to a small number so that you can have time to educate is vital.

April 2010 marked another successful trip for the Florida O&P Outreach Team (FOOT Foundation) to Guatemala. It was a success as we helped more than 25 children in need of orthotics. We also educated local O&P providers, doctors, therapists and families on orthotics.

Dino M. Scanio

Dino M. Scanio, CO, LO is the treasurer of the Florida Association for Orthotists and Prosthetists.

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