Volunteering abroad is good for NHS, study finds

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Health professionals who volunteer in the developing world are providing substantial benefits to the NHS when they return, according to the Universities of Manchester and Nottingham, and Health Education England researchers.

The team say the increasing numbers of NHS volunteering schemes are equally helpful to the UK and developing world.

The study, was funded by Health Education England and is published in the journal Human Resources for Health. In a review of 55 academic papers, the team found 28 costs, 133 benefits and 33 features of the experience that led to costs or benefits.

The team also studied the opinions of 45 experts in global health volunteering, health professional education and volunteers, who agreed on 115 benefits.

Study lead author Dr Lucie Byrne-Davis, from The University of Manchester, said: “The relationship between the low and high income countries is more equal than many people realise.

“Yes, voluntary work helps developing countries to engage in global health issues and support their systems of healthcare. But we want to get the message out that the activity is equally important to the UK. So we think the UK should get behind its NHS staff volunteering in other countries, but for that to happen, we need to demonstrate how it benefits us in the UK."

Over recent years, volunteering in developing countries has become popular amongst health professionals such as doctors or nurses. They typically spend one or two weeks in countries in Africa or Asia.

Dr Natasha Tyler from The University of Nottingham, who was on the research team, said: “The benefits we found included learning how to work with limited resources and increasing awareness of cultural differences and similarities. Improving the ability to apply clinical skills to a new context was also very important.

“Though costs were much less of a feature, including lack of recognition from colleagues and management, lack of accreditation and developing some less relevant skills for their NHS work. Some staff also need to use up their annual leave to volunteer, and we think this might not be necessarily a good thing. But we must stress these costs were not considered to be 'core' by the experts indicating that negative outcomes are not inevitable and can be reduced or removed in the right placement.”

Professor Ged Byrne from Health Education England said: “We have now created a tool which allows health professionals to self-assess many of these benefits. It will be used, by Health Education England, to generate the important information, collecting data on what experiences lead to what types of benefit.

Dr Matthew Jackson, Deputy clinical director of Critical Care at Stockport NHS Trust worked in East Africa during the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak. In an eight week deployment, he was part of a research team investigating novel treatments for the disease.

Dr Jackson has worked on an on-going project over a five year period in Northern Uganda developing, teaching and handing over a course for managing acutely ill adults. He also worked with a Swazi university to develop a bachelor programme for nurse anaesthesia, in response to a massive shortfall of anaesthetists in the country.

He said: “As an NHS consultant, my work abroad has been foundational in developing management and project development competencies which I rely on daily in my role as Deputy clinical director of Critical Care and Trust Lead for deteriorating patients.”

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