How Do You Get Started Working in Humanitarian Healthcare?
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What can you do to get started working or volunteering in humanitarian healthcare? This is a question we are asked often as the Faculty of Remote, Rural and Humanitarian Healthcare.
As part of World Humanitarian Day 2022, we asked some of our Members, Executive Committee Members, Faculty Advisory Board Members and key stakeholders to share how they got started in humanitarian healthcare. Below is a selection of some of their answers that provide an overview of the different ways healthcare professionals can support humanitarian healthcare.
The stories cover a wide range of healthcare systems, contexts, and ways to support equitable access to safe healthcare globally. We hope that you find the stories shared useful and can join us in celebrating humanitarian healthcare professionals globally.
Professor Tony Redmond OBE - Founder of UK-Med, Emeritus Professor of Emergency Medicine, Keele University and Professor of International Emergency Medicine, University of Manchester; FRRHH Executive Committee Member
In 1988 I was asked by the UK government to take a medical team to an earthquake in Armenia, in the then Soviet Union. With colleagues we built on the experience over the following years.
Andy Kent - Orthopaedic Surgical Consultant, NHS Highland; Surgical Director at UK-Med; Medical Advisor at Halo Trust; FRRHH Deputy Chair
I spent 17 years serving in the British Army as a general duties RMO, trainee surgeon and consultant (Trauma & Orthopaedics). During that time, I served in many varied remote & rural (and often hostile) environments. I acquired a skill set that was rather different from my non-military colleagues.
I left the Army in 2002 (mainly for family reasons - we had four children under 5 years of age) and took up my current post at Raigmore hospital in Inverness. I was attracted by the location and by the generality of the job.
On my job application I stated that I planned to give regular humanitarian service and to increase this once my children had become independent. I am now in that position! At present I have one daughter doing her PhD (in neuroscience) in London, Ontario. My second daughter is teaching in Madagascar. My elder son is doing Royal Marine Officer training and my younger son (currently studying at Edinburgh Uni) is applying to be a pilot in the RAF.
Paula Sansom MBE - Senior Consultant, The Operations Partnership; Introduction to Humanitarian Healthcare Course Contributor
I first started working in humanitarian healthcare in 1995, I had been working as a children’s nurse and had some A&E experience but had always wanted to travel. After reading a book by Dr Pauline Cutting about her work in the refugee camps in Lebanon, I got a position in Gaza, building up the skills of Paediatric nurses in two hospitals there, in preparation to launching a paediatric nurse training course. It felt slow at times as it took time to earn people’s trust and help people see the value of changing their practice. After the first year I moved to the West Bank to provide overall coordination across both Gaza and the West Bank managing a small team working on curriculum design and identifying placements and students. The nurses were hungry for information, I remember finding one textbook (the only one) on one ward at the children’s hospital that was dated from 1948 and later being at the opening of a medical library at one hospital in Gaza the healthcare staff just wanted to learn.
Shaenna Loughanne - Trustee, Bridge2Aid; FRRHH Interim Faculty Advisory Board Member
I first started working in the humanitarian healthcare sector, as a volunteer, in 2006. Myself and my husband owned a couple of NHS dental practices, and we both wanted to experience life outside of our 4 walls. My husband was a dentist and we thought it would be great to use the skills he had to make a real difference in a part of the world where access to safe, emergency dentistry was almost non-existent. We looked for an NGO that was training local people on the ground to ensure the work was sustainable. After volunteering for a number of years, I left the practices and joined the NGO as a full-time staff member in 2011.
Teodoro Forcht-Dagi - Professor of Neurosurgery, Mayo College of Medicine & Science; FRRHH Interim Faculty Advisory Board Member
Both my parents were involved in refugee health in the aftermath of WW II. I grew up with a sense that this aspect of medicine constituted an essential duty for the profession, irrespective of which specialty one chose to pursue. I then had the opportunity to pursue an embedded master’s degree in global health during medical school. That experience encouraged me to pursue a career in which I might myself contribute to humanitarian healthcare on a global basis.
Emma Roberts - Independent Consultant; Introduction to Humanitarian Healthcare Course Contributor
I began my humanitarian health career in the refugee camps of eastern Sudan when I arrived as a general and paediatric nurse and was needed to be on call for 2 hospitals that offered 24-hour care including obstetrics and some very minor surgery. the nearest hospital for referral was a 2-hour drive away across a dam that was closed at night and required some considerable negotiations to get access. We had Eritrean health staff with some health training but no doctor on site most nights although we had one on the team who we could ask for support but with no radio or mobile phones initial diagnosis and decisions were mine and mine alone! The book, Where there is no Doctor, was a key resource we used!
Anisa Jafar - NIHR Academic Clinical Lecturer, Manchester Foundation Trust; Introduction to Humanitarian Healthcare Course Contributor
My interest in humanitarian healthcare really began when I started my Academic Clinical Fellowship in Emergency Medicine alongside colleagues at the University of Manchester’s Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute. The research interest developed into a PhD focussing on medical documentation in disasters.
Ram Vadi - Health Director, UK-Med
I began working in the humanitarian field a few years after finishing medical school. My first international experience was working in Uganda in a small healthcare facility on the outskirts of Kampala. After a few weeks, I was requested to support a short mission for Ebola in Guinea in 2014. The expectation was that the response would last just a few weeks and I would then return to my duties in Uganda. I ended up staying for more than a year and a half in West Africa and never going back to Uganda. It was an amazing experience and I learned to always expect the unexpected.
Diana Maddah - Health Referent, Risk Communication and Community Engagement, UK-Med
I am living in Lebanon where I have witnessed a lot of political conflicts and complex emergency settings, I started my career as a humanitarian worker in 2011 supporting IDPs, and refugees.
Tarek Alkhalil - Senior Health Advisor, UK-Med
It was during the war in Lebanon back in 2006. I was in Damascus and the team I have joined responded to the medical needs of the Lebanese refugee waves as well as the third country nationalities who had to flee the war there. It was my first immersive exposure to a humanitarian crisis. We were then based at a monastery, and we also reached out to people in need within communities.
Teresa Afonso - Senior Health Advisor, UK-Med
I did not know I would end up doing Humanitarian health! It was a happy and successful happening! It started in 2016 when I started to volunteer and work with communities in the remote and rural areas around Luang Prabang by supporting the set up and clinical care for a children and paediatric population for hard-to-reach communities in northern Laos (Lao Democratic Republic). That experience sparked my interest in working with vulnerable communities tailoring medical care to the specific needs of the local populations. After that, I got into humanitarian healthcare in several disaster affected contexts, where I joined and lead teams responding to the medical needs of refugee and internally displaced populations such as South Sudan and Bangladesh, in camp settings. These experiences were my immersive contact and exposure to the needs, challenges and strategies around provision of emergency life saving care for populations in different sectors of health care.
This gave me the insights to grow my passion for humanitarian health, which I also experienced whilst working in severe malnutrition centers in central Africa and tackling the specific needs around children and women’s health in Venezuela. Having training and education in tropical diseases and global and public health was what also triggered me to develop a career in public health in humanitarian settings.
Jennifer Collins - Expert Infection Prevention, Control & Case Management, World Health Organisation; FRRHH Interim Faculty Advisory Board Member
I originally went on a gap year volunteering in South Africa from which I ended up working within health-related projects and as a side project supporting Malawian refugees in a township of Johannesburg. This sparked an interest in this area and led me to my first position as a nurse within tropical and infectious disease. Although I worked on international projects as a student, my first full time humanitarian experience was with doctors without borders within an IDP camp in South Sudan. This was mainly based on my experience working with infectious diseases and tuberculosis across the UK.
Najeeb Rahman - Consultant in Emergency Medicine, Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust; Introduction to Humanitarian Healthcare Course Contributor
My first 'deployment' involved a degree of happenstance as part of my medical elective, where I ended up volunteering in southern Kosovo just a few days after the war had ended. Following on from that experience, a number of senior health practitioners from across the globe met to found the medical charity Doctors Worldwide, through which I continued to volunteer on a range of crisis response as well as health partnership and development opportunities.
Nigel Rossiter - Consultant Trauma & Orthopaedic Surgeon & Chair of Trustees, Primary Trauma Care Foundation; FRRHH Interim Faculty Advisory Board Member
I was in the British Army from 1985 and really got a kick out of what we called “Hearts and Minds work”. On leaving the Army in 2003 I joined Basingstoke and set up a formal NHS link twinning the hospital with Hoima Regional Referral Hospital in Northwest Uganda and a charity was aware of the Primary Trauma Care Foundation (PTCF), having worked with its founder in Oxford in 1997.
I then taught PTC in Hoima and went on to coordinate PTC training for the whole of Uganda and subsequently ten COSECSA countries during the COOL project. From this I went on to chair PTCF and as a result of this have a seat on the board of the G4 Alliance.
I have addressed the UN General Assembly on the subject of “Trauma: the forgotten pandemic” and written about it. I am now on the FAB of FRRHH, as well as a number of other organisations globally.
Sarah Richardson - SpR Emergency Medicine, Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh; International Clinical Lead, Safeguard Medical; FRRHH Interim Faculty Advisory Board Member
I have been working in the humanitarian sector for more than the last decade, but I first was exposed to the sector when I was a medical student doing a shadowing medical apprenticeship in rural Tanzania in 2008.
Dr M. Haris Iqbal Ghole - International Dental Ambassador, Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and FRRHH Member
My work for humanitarian healthcare started with Dental and Medical Camps where we went to distant villages to provide support education and medical treatments to the less fortunate people. My first experience 9 years ago gave me the overwhelming feeling that instilled this passion in me to take a certain time out every year and go on a mission to make a difference in someone’s life. I have been doing a mission every year since then.
Ben LaBrot - Founder & CEO, Floating Doctors Inc.; Clinical Professor, University of Southern California Keck SOM; Compliance Advisor, Roche Pharmaceuticals
I started in humanitarian healthcare purely by accident… Right after qualifying as a physician, I was traveling strictly as a tourist in East Africa and was invited to visit a Maasai village. When the folks there learned I was a doctor, something happened that happens to doctors everywhere they go, someone asked “Oh, you’re a doctor? Hey, can you take a look at something for me?”. That sidewalk consultation, where there were no sidewalks, in an extremely resource limited setting, turned into seven hours of seeing patients and doing whatever I could with the little I had with me. I got back in the car and swore to myself that I was going to come back to that community or any in the world just like it, where people were poor and far from service, and I was going to bring a bigger backpack. For the next couple of years, I thought obsessively about how I was going to do that and ultimately leverage my background. Working and operating on the ocean to found the Floating Doctors, the ship best mobile medical team focused on providing health services and building capacity notches for underserved populations but remote underserved populations. We sailed to Haiti in 2010 after the huge earthquake there, and never stopped. As an epilogue, I did return to that Village eight years later, with way better tools and knowledge, and ever since then I communicate with that village every couple of months by email and do telemedicine for them. East Africa is a place of beginnings… my journey to humanitarian medicine began where our species began. I guess I had to go back to the beginning to find my future.
You may also be interested in reading our other blogs from our World Humanitarian Day 2022 series:
World Humanitarian Day 2022: Celebrating Humanitarian Healthcare Workers | RCSEd
Working in Humanitarian Healthcare – Guidance from our experts | RCSEd
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