Thursday, 7 August 2014

Voluntary Engagement in Global Health

THET's Volunteer Engagement Manager, Graeme Chisholm, gives his reaction to the publication of the new framework for voluntary engagement in global health by the UK health sector, Engaging in Global Health, by the UK Department of Health & Department for International Development.

When Lord Crisp published his report Global Health Partnerships back in 2007 I was working for VSO in their marketing department trying to encourage more health professionals to volunteer. When I read what Lord Crisp had written about partnerships and volunteering I immediately felt that this was an important moment and began thinking about how we could help turn the report’s recommendations into a reality. Seven years on I’m lucky enough to be working for THET on just that. 

But so much has happened as a result of Global Health Partnerships. For example, you may or may not know this but the Health Partnership Scheme (HPS) THET manages on behalf of the Department for International Development is, at least partly, the result of Lord Crisp’s visionary report. 

Since HPS began in 2011 so much valuable work has been done by UK health professionals working in partnership with colleagues across Africa and Asia. And as a result more and more health workers in low income countries are now better trained to cope with the enormous challenges they face on a daily basis. Challenges difficult to imagine until you’ve witnessed them. I was in Sierra Leone last year and although they’ve made great strides since the civil war health care coverage is still at best fragile. A hospital I visited had no blood and the laboratory was barely functioning and this was the main hospital serving an entire district of more than 300,000 people. But all is not lost and progress is being made as a State Registered Nurse in the District Hospital in Sierra Leone I visited explained: “I have learned so much, I have learned about neonatal resuscitation. I have learned how to use a bag valve mask for breathing. I have learned about leadership and mentoring. We learned how to triage sick children when they come to the hospital … these things, we can now put them into practice.”

An infant is treated by Volunteer Nurse Aides in Sierra Leone. Photo: Timur Bekir

Another legacy of Lord Crisp’s report was the launch of a Framework for NHS Involvement in International Development published by the Department of Health. And now that the Department of Health is publishing a revised Framework, called Engaging in Global Health, I think we find ourselves at another important moment. 

Two things stand out for me in this new Framework, the first is that engaging in global health can achieve institutional buy-in from the NHS but only if activities are properly organised and risk is managed effectively. If we can do this then we as a partnership community have an excellent case for demonstrating to the powers that be that what we’re doing is legitimate. The second is the recommendation for national quality standards as a starting point for building a wider consensus on what represents good practice in voluntary engagement in global health. So if what we do is of high quality then we can show that it is not only legitimate but it is also great value for all concerned. 

THET is currently developing a partnership standard which will support the community to not only help legitimise the work being done through partnerships but will also help partnerships showcase the quality of work as well. The standard will look at things like how strategic a partnership is, how well organised it is and how committed to learning. 

In our professional careers we all need to monitor and evaluate our projects and if you think about it we do it all the time in our private lives as well be it in relationships or with children. The partner I visited in Sierra Leone summed up why a key component of monitoring and evaluation is so important really nicely with the following, “Why is reliable data so important? As a basis for taking appropriate action”. And that’s it exactly, if we don’t reflect and learn we’ll keep on making the same mistakes. 

Professional development is another one of those areas that is often cited as a way of demonstrating quality and where well organised partnerships can really show-off to NHS boards. A nice example of how one partnership is tackling the question of how volunteers develop professionally is Thames Valley and Wessex Leadership Academy’s Improving Global Health programme. They’re using the NHS’s Leadership Framework to evidence what volunteers gain from their international experiences and to show how this experience benefits the NHS. 

An Improving Global Health fellow teaches with local health worker. Photo: Timur Bekir

An NHS Improving Global Health Fellow I met in Cambodia sums it up nicely, “I’ve been here five months and I think I’ve learnt more in this time about leadership and service development and all these really key skills than I’ve learnt in five years in the UK.” 

It doesn’t have to be a leap of faith to believe that engaging in global health is good for us all does it?

Developing Leaders, Improving Global Health is a new video from THET focusing on the impact NHS volunteers are having on healthcare in rural Cambodia. THET funds long term volunteers through the health partnership between Improving Global Health and The Maddox-Jolie-Pitt Foundation.