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Global surgeons in Vietnam

Phuong Nguyen, MD, Named Associate Vice Chair of Global Surgery in the CU Department of Surgery 

Nguyen heads a new global surgery program that sends CU surgeons around the world to teach, practice, and conduct research. 

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Written by Greg Glasgow on January 9, 2024

Phuong Nguyen, MD, professor of plastic and reconstructive surgery in the University of Colorado Department of Surgery, has been named the department’s first vice chair of global surgery.  

In his new role, Nguyen — who has been part of medical missions in Vietnam, Nepal, Peru, Guatemala, and elsewhere — will create a global surgery program that formalizes and consolidates the department’s international efforts in which CU surgeons travel to other parts of the world to perform surgeries, often in medically underserved areas. 

“In 2015, the Lancet Commission published a multinational authorship article on global surgery — what the need is, what the benchmarks are for 2030,” he says. “They found that 5 billion people in the world could benefit from surgery. Nearly a third of what we call the disability-adjusted life years of humans can be attributed to not getting surgery, which is pretty staggering, if you think about it. That really lit a fire among institutions on the necessity of global surgery.” 

Expanding the definition of global surgery 

Before arriving at the CU Department of Surgery in September 2023, Nguyen built a global surgery program at the University of Texas. He hopes to replicate that program’s success in Colorado, with a new global surgery initiative that goes beyond traditional mission-based efforts.  

“When we think of global surgery, we think of the term ‘medical mission,’ where you take resources from a high-income country and go to a low- or middle-income country, do a bunch of operations over a short period of time, and then leave,” Nguyen says. “It’s becoming apparent that that model is not sustainable; it doesn’t make a long-term impact. 

“Where academic institutions have an advantage is leveraging things we already do really well — education, research, and high-level expertise for a wide variety of surgical conditions,” Nguyen continues. “Rather than going in just to do operations and leaving, it’s key to find credible partners within the country who can work with you over a longer period of time to help build upon shared experiences, where that partner can build the capacity to take care of specific surgical conditions within their own country and using their own resources.” 

Building on experience and creating new opportunities 

Nguyen has already compiled a list of nearly 20 faculty members in the CU Department of Surgery who have some sort of international relationship that includes regular travel; his next step is to catalog and formalize those relationships, structuring them in such a way that residents and medical students can take advantage of the opportunities as well — potentially making the CU Department of Surgery more attractive to trainees. 

“It will have profound benefits not just for faculty, but for residents and students,” he says. “It will provide opportunities for engagement and create a more formalized mechanism to not only investigate new opportunities, but also to do things in a safe way that’s sustainable and ultimately is capacity building and helps our partners.” 

Phuong, who graduated from the University of Minnesota Medical School and did residencies at New York University and the University of California, Los Angeles, envisions a program that doesn’t only send surgeons abroad, but also brings partners to the U.S. to experience the health system and take part in scholarly activities focusing on education and research collaboration. 

“The fun part is evolving together and identifying those needs,” he says. “The CU Department of Surgery is really well positioned. We have great faculty here that is diverse, that has a lot of interest. But what has not happened previously was a coalition and a centralized way of demonstrating this.” 

Collaboration is key 

Four years ago, Phuong co-founded Nuoy Reconstructive International, a non-governmental organization that provides access to complex reconstructive care including craniofacial, microsurgery, and hand surgery in Vietnam, as well as creating educational conferences and research collaborations there. He has made regular trips to the country over the past 20 years, watching the country change and learning that educating and working alongside local partners is the key to lasting success. 

“There’s the old adage about teaching a man to fish, and that’s part of it,” he says, “but it’s not just teaching a person to fish. It’s going fishing together.” 

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Phuong Nguyen, MD