Doctor ‘Gives Back’ Through Volunteer Work in Latin America

Doctor 'Gives Back' Through Volunteer Work in Latin America

Dr. Rudolph Roth is a lucky man. He "found a home" in the Air Force, which educated and provided him with a profession at government expense — and both parties have been happy with the result.

After graduating from the Air Force Academy, Roth went on to medical school in the service where he specialized in medical dermatology for the next 30 years on active duty. Following his discharge, he became the Director of Medical Dermatology at Penn Medicine at Radnor in the suburbs of Philadelphia. His plan at the time was to work for 12 years and then retire comfortably.

As he approached that date, however, he realized he was not ready to retire. "I had my health , my energy and I loved what I do," he recalls, and then he had what he calls a "light bulb" moment. He would continue to work, but he would get involved in helping other people throughout the world in developing dermatology.

He approached the people in his department at Penn to determine if that was feasible. "They were incredibly supportive," he says. "The department already had a global focus and we had one physician, Dr. Carrie Kovarik, who was heavily involved in global endeavors. I decided to get involved in the Western Hemisphere and began exploring partnerships that Penn had with countries and programs in that area. I wanted to build on what others had already done and to work within the system instead of creating an entirely new endeavor." 

This occurred in August 2012, about six months before Dr. Roth had planned on slowing down. He quickly learned that Penn had partnerships in a number of countries, including three in our own hemisphere. 

"We already had a a dermatology residency program in Guatemala," he recalls, "and I met wih the leaders of that partnership, Drs. Brian Strohm and Charles Branas, who were enthusiastic about my joining them. I took my first trip to Guatemala with both of them shortly after that and that's when the residency program really took off."

As part of the program, Dr. Roth works with residents in Guatemala, where he lectures, performs surgery and works one-on-one with senior residents. When possible, he also attends graduation ceremonies when he's in the country. 

"We also created a scholarship for two of the senior residents to travel to Penn and spend two weeks with us to see what makes our program unique," he said. "They spend one week doing medical dermatology and one week doing surgical dermatology. We pay for their travel, their room and we take them out to dinner several times each  week.

"Finally, and this is the hallmark of the program, we created a joint trip where two residents from Penn and two residents from the Guatemala program join staff from both programs and go to a remote area in the Mayan part of their country to practice dermatology. Most of the people there have never seen a dermatologist. In teams of two, we go into a remote village to see patients and in the evening, over dinner, we discuss the cases we've seen. On the final day of the trip, one of the residents gives a presentation concerning all of the interesting cases we've seen. All of this is fully funded by the Global Dermatology Program."

In addition to his work in Guatemala, Dr. Roth spent two weeks in Botswana, where Dr. Kovarik has helped create a program that the university has indicated it wants to emulate in a 10-year plan. He has also worked in Costa Rica, which, he says, "Has a very good dermatology residency program and is a great possibility for a future partner." His experience in Haiti has not been as positive. "By far the poorest country in our hemisphere, it is in need of much assistance," he says. "I still go there twice a year in an effort to see if I can get something off the ground, but it has been very difficult." 

After about four years in the program, there are still some things that Dr. Roth finds "incredible" about his involvement overseas. "Not only were the people at Penn positive about allowing me to leave my practice 10 percent of the time, but (they) have been incredibly supportive financially," he says. "Lots of people have great ideas for projects to help others, but get hung up on the 'how do we pay for this' problem." His department not only agreed to help with the financing, but they have personally contributed to the cause — as have patients.

And Dr. Roth has also helped with the "how do we pay for this" problem. He not only contributes 10 percent of his time to this work, he also donates 10 percent of his income. 

As indicated earlier, Dr. Roth is "a lucky man." We've rarely met a man who seemed happier in his work and with the opportunity to help others.