The North East is set to establish itself at the forefront of NHS international volunteering. Health Reporter HELEN RAE takes a look at a scheme that is helping NHS staff assist medics abroad.
When people in the UK need an operation, they generally have confidence that the surgeons carrying out the procedure are trained to a high standard.
That is not always the case in some other countries as poorer areas often do not have the resources to provide the best medical training possible.
But Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust is doing its bit to help after securing £25,000 to further expand on its award-winning international volunteering work.
The trust received the funding from the Academic Health Science Network for North East and North Cumbria (AHSN NENC) to develop an online resource for NHS staff volunteering abroad.
The website aims to encourage more NHS staff to volunteer by sharing practical information, updates on developments at a national level, the ability to connect with other like-minded local volunteers as well as acting as a platform for volunteers to share experiences.
In addition, the team is also planning to organise a regional global health conference next year to celebrate the ongoing work around international health links in the North East.
Brenda Longstaff, head of international partnerships at Northumbria Healthcare, said: “The project gives us an opportunity to look across the whole of the North East and North Cumbria area and connect with other people who are doing international work in order for us to come together to share best practice and learn from each other.
“It will also enable us to celebrate the achievements of people for their work overseas and how this benefits the local NHS.
“International experience is particularly relevant today as the NHS provides healthcare to an increasingly multi-cultural nation. Knowledge and skills gained from overseas work improves cultural awareness and also awareness of global health issues.
“This is particularly important at a time of high profile pandemics such as SARS and more recently, ebola. Healthcare staff who have worked overseas are more likely to have the skills to help the NHS respond to these sort of challenges.”
The funding has allowed a member of staff to be employed to take this work forward. Northumbria Healthcare has been undertaking international work for 15 years and has firmly positioned itself at the forefront of work in the international volunteering field.
Over that time the trust has built up a long-lasting connection with Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre. The trust’s charity, Bright, has supported the project which sees employees volunteering their time to travel to Tanzania to train their African counterparts to enable them to provide improved medical services for patients in their country.
The training initially focused on physiotherapy, occupational therapy, clinical coding and wound management. However, the level of support has expanded over the years to include theatre nursing, sterile supplies, ultrasound and keyhole surgery – the first of its kind in Tanzania.
This included the development of a two-way video link which allows real-time images and sounds to be transmitted between Tanzania and Hexham General Hospital in Northumberland. This enables surgeons in the North East to see and hear medical staff in Tanzania and give advice and support while the keyhole operations are taking place.
The innovative project was recognised nationally earlier this year when it was awarded the Karen Woo Surgical Team of the Year by the British Medical Journal. Thanks to this experience and expertise, the trust has also developed links with Ghana and Nigeria.
Brenda, who has previously lived in Africa, the Middle East and the Far East and is a member of the NHS International Volunteering Group, said: “Over time we have seen significant benefits for our staff who have taken part in this work.
“It helps them build confidence and we often see them become keen to step forward to be leaders, which is a huge benefit to the NHS. Most people assume international volunteering is like a holiday but people who do this spend three months at a time working very hard.
“I have developed research on benefits of international work in terms of professional development and I am the only operational manager from the NHS who advises the Department of Health at a senior level regarding the development of international volunteering with the NHS.
“I know the Government is keen to see people sharing experiences because at the moment there are a lot of uncoordinated activities. They want to bring together groups so the level of outcomes is higher and they want to see things that are going to leave a lasting legacy.
“The AHSN NENC support for our international health links project has come at just the right time and will help position the region as leaders in this area.”
The AHSN NENC is dedicated to improving healthcare, driving wealth creation and promoting research participation within the region. It has invested more than £3m to support projects and local health technology firms that are working towards improving health outcomes for patients and contributing to wealth creation in the region.
Seamus O’Neill, chief executive officer, AHSN NENC, said: “We are very pleased to support this programme as it paves the way for what looks set to be an invaluable online resource for international volunteers throughout the region.
“The platform will enable all of the NHS organisations across the region to showcase their examples of the exceptional work they are doing overseas and share best practice. This, along with the global health conference, will firmly establish the North East and North Cumbria as a hotbed for development in the area of international volunteering.”
Peter Smith, a critical care outreach practitioner with Northumbria Healthcare, has been involved in international volunteering with the trust for 10 years. His first trip to Tanzania was in 2004 and he has visited a total of six times since, returning from his most recent trip at the beginning of December.
Utilising more than 25 years’ experience in emergency and critical care, Peter has helped the staff at Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre (KCMC) develop in these areas over the years.
He said: “I have always liked a challenge so when I was approached by Brenda in early 2004 and asked if I was interested, I said yes. When I first arrived in Tanzania the realisation of the scale of the challenge really hit me and I was thinking: ‘What can I actually do to make a difference?’ But once you take a step back and set realistic goals it becomes easier.
“Applying your skills over there is very different to how we work here within the NHS. You have to forget many things in terms of resource and equipment and make the most of what’s available in that environment. It’s like going back 50 years in the UK but everyone at the centre does the best they can with what they have.”
Peter’s experience working overseas has had a direct impact on his role within the NHS helping him to grow and develop in a professional capacity.
He added: “I feel like it has made me more resourceful. I’m much more adaptable and flexible in the work environment and I tend not to get as fazed by changes as easily as a result. It’s definitely been beneficial and has given me a very different perspective in general.
“A hospital administrator in Tanzania once told me that the reason he stayed out there was because he found that with 1% input you can get a 500% output. That’s something that will always stick with me – little changes can actually have a big impact.”
Northumbria Healthcare’s longstanding partnership with KCMC is one of a number of projects which has helped the trust earn respect among the international volunteering community. Peter says he is lucky to work within an organisation which actively encourages and supports its employees to take part in volunteer activity.
He said: “There’s certainly people who would shy away from volunteer work abroad because it would be totally out of their comfort zone. But that’s part of the skill of Brenda as she is there to help people understand the reality of what it involves. You have to go out with the right attitude and be prepared to work with the team there.
“It’s a brilliant learning and development opportunity for any member of staff. It’s important to remember that it’s not a holiday, it is hard work but you come back a changed person with a different outlook on life.”