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Lawrence Loh, MD, MPH ’10

Lawrence Loh describes himself as a “recovering voluntourist,” a term he coined to draw attention to the current challenges surrounding short-term overseas medical experiences. As a long-time volunteer in the Dominican Republic, Lawrence had experienced the downsides of non-standard treatment protocols and inadequate follow-up, waste and duplication of effort, and power imbalances between US-sponsored teams and the hosting community. However, he also recognized the potential for visiting medical teams to build lasting bridges with local communities.

Together with his friend Henry Lin, a pediatric hepatologist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Lawrence founded The 53rd Week . The organization’s mission is to minimize harms and maximize the impacts of short-term global health volunteerism through advocacy, research, and innovation. Its initial project was the development of a collaborative model in La Romana, Dominican Republic, that involved dozens of teams and local leadership working together instead of individually to pool their collective investments. By advocating for and researching ethical and responsible standards of participation, The 53rd Week believes that properly conducted short-term efforts can produce meaningful outcomes in line with the good intentions of volunteers.

As a physician completing a residency in public health and preventive medicine at the University of Toronto, Lawrence came to the Bloomberg School in 2009 to sharpen his global health research skills and make the connections that would enable him to scale up his non-profit and multiply its influence. He continues the School’s tradition of training physicians to serve as local health officers, which was common through the 1950s but is today increasingly rare. He currently practices urgent-care medicine and serves as a medical health officer for the Fraser Health Authority in greater Vancouver, British Columbia, while also logging time as director of operations for The 53rd Week and carrying out research with the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.

When asked why he chose to work in a local health department, given his extensive training and interest in global health, Lawrence cited the Helsinki Bus Station Theory, which proposes that the best way to develop a career is to initially “stay on the bus” and undertake key formative experiences needed for a young professional, persisting until one’s route diverges in satisfying new directions. Being a medical health officer provides him with a myriad of opportunities to develop essential practical, research, and administrative skills that will serve him well in future global health pursuits.

As a Canadian at Johns Hopkins, Lawrence enjoyed the ability to relate easily to both international and American classmates. As a doctor, he similarly traversed the medical and public health communities. The Bloomberg School’s wide variety of professional backgrounds—nurses, lawyers, basic scientists, social workers—“opened my mind to the breadth of perspectives in public health,” he recalled. “The time I spent with friends from non-MD backgrounds gave me insights into public health problems that often require solutions from outside my expertise as a physician.”  

Lawrence has published and spoken widely on short-term global health experiences and global health workforce issues. His peer-reviewed articles have addressed topics such as developing-world medical faculty development, physician migration, public health physician training, and the history of public health medicine in Canada. But ultimately, the key to Lawrence’s current and future success is his remarkable ability to cultivate relationships and build them into international networks. He was recently awarded the Jay S. Drotman Memorial Award,  which recognizes a young public health professional who has challenged traditional public health policy or practice in a creative and positive way. His nomination was supported by a diverse, multidisciplinary array of colleagues and friends from the U.S., Canada, Costa Rica, Peru, Denmark, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Portugal, Switzerland, Ghana, Sudan, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, and New Zealand.  

After accepting the honor at this year’s APHA meeting in Boston, Lawrence is staying on the bus to see where his talents for social entrepreneurship, leadership, and research will take him next. During his well-enjoyed stop at Hopkins, “I developed a network of collaborators, mentors, and friends and have been very well supported. Even to this day, though spread all over the world, we work together to answer the tough questions of global health and make a difference.”