INCISION UK Global Health Blog
How did you get involved in Global Health?
When I was a medical student I got involved with various student societies (Friends of MSF, SfGH etc) and it was at one of those events I heard a Professor from a Global Health charity speak about her experiences working abroad in Obstetric Epidemiology. I plucked up the courage to e-mail her and just under 2 years later I was on my way to Ethiopia to carry out an observational study on hygiene practises around Childbirth.
What did you learn from your experiences?
The first thing to say is that if you are polite and interested, then people will do whatever they can to help you and get you involved. The sort of personalities who are attracted to Global Health (in my experience) are very kind individuals, and most people will be delighted to tell you about the projects they are working on, and get you involved where they can. Secondly, you absolutely must be able to think outside the box – it is more fun that way! And thirdly – visas and paperwork are a necessary evil that cannot be escaped.
What advice do you have for medical students hoping to be involved in Global Health and health policy in the future?
It can be tempting to get involved with every project that comes your way. Be cautious. Consider the longevity of the work you are going to do. Lots of charities will have opportunities for health professionals to be parachuted into communities and do a few months of work which completely stops when that person leaves.
Remember that although you may be going to offer your skills in a place that is resource poor and struggling, you will definitely gain more personally than you leave behind. If you take this attitude you can’t go wrong.
Be open. You may think you know it all when it comes to your specialist subject, but the local staff members have been doing this for years (probably since before you were born) so work together, not against each other to try and improve things.
Start small with projects. I spent one year in the same hospital and change is slow. That’s ok. Perfect a very straightforward traybake or snack to make. There is no problem that can’t be solved by people coming together over food. Trust me.
Tell me about your experience working in South Africa
I spent 12 months working in the Eastern Cape in South Africa as a medical officer from July 2019. I organised this via Africa Health Placements (a charity who has sadly now closed down). The process of getting to SA took more than 2 years, and on several occasions I was told that it wasn’t going to happen. I persevered with mountains of paperwork and on 29th July 2019 I started my first shift.
I worked in a small district hospital which was 4 hours from the nearest referral hospital. I went as a post FY2 doctor and within 8 weeks I was performing caesarean sections, spinal anaesthaesia, paediatric and adult intubation and managing complicated HIV + AIDS. There is simply not enough time here to record my adventures, but I’d be delighted to share my personal blog with anyone who is interested. Working in South Africa was simply indescribable. I learned more than I can even begin to comprehend, and I was challenged every single day. The only reason I am at home again is because I realised that in order to be of most use to my patients, I needed to be able to operate independently, and so have returned to the UK to start my specialty training in Vascular Surgery.
How has this pandemic influenced your views on a PH/GH career?
COVID has had healthcare systems across the world on their knees. When I began to comprehend the demand on the NHS and the crisis mode that we had stepped into I began to panic. The implications for LMIC countries are just devastating. We also need to consider the impact on displaced populations and those who live in refugee camps. If the UK is struggling to keep afloat then what are my friends in South Africa going to do when they don’t have running water on a good day? The pandemic has magnified just how fragile healthcare systems across the globe are – the need to be involved in global health, and the importance of publicising the inequalities across the world has never been more pertinent.
How have you combined global health with your surgical training?
This is an ongoing balancing act for me. There are lots of ways to complement your clinical training with a passion for Global Health. I can tell there has been a definite shift in attitudes towards global health since I left the NHS in 2016. At the moment I have been focusing on getting my membership exams (another necessary evil) and settling back into NHS life. NHS Scotland is making huge commitments towards Global Health Partnerships (have a look at their Global citizenship site online). I have been connecting with other like minded individuals in my new trust. When the time is right I will be taking time out of programme to pursue a higher research degree in an area of Global Surgery. A few important resources for someone in a similar position to myself:
- Royal College of Surgeons
Any tips for applying to Global Health programmes etc?
I’m a total Twitter convert – definitely have an account. Social media is hugely important now. When I was working in the rural hospital in SA it was invaluable to gain advice and make referrals.
Good things are worth waiting for. Don’t be put off by lengthy application processes or lots of paperwork.
If you ask mentors or senior colleagues for advice, take it with a pinch of salt. I was told not to take time out of training by some highly respected individuals in my field. I did it anyway and had incredible experiences. I then came home and secured my dream job – which, by the way didn’t exist when I went off on my ‘FY3’ year! (Which subsequently became an FY4!)
Hannah O’Neill – ST1 Vascular Surgery at NHS Tayside – Hannah.o’email@example.com