Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Global Health: The Northern Irish Approach

90% of blindness occurs in Low and Middle Income Countries (LMICs), the places that are least prepared to deal with this burden, but about 90% of the research funding goes to High Income Countries (HICs).

At Queens University Belfast, as part of a rapidly evolving global health scene, there is much to celebrate and be excited for in terms of the progress being made to change this statistic. As an ophthalmologist, who has spent over ten years in China developing appropriate approaches to vision impairments and diseases, it is an exciting time to be in Northern Ireland and to be part of pioneering global vision programmes which are affecting real change both here and throughout the rest of the world.  

As part of this, we have a number of projects underway including; a new Global Health MPH to ensure that there is improved training in global health and our Global Health Symposium, now in its third year, which continues to bring in diverse participants from all over the world, including the Republic of Ireland. The Global Challenge Research Fund has also enabled colleagues at the Queen’s Centre for Public Health to apply for ‘research aid’ to develop models for Cervical Cancer screening in Vietnam and look into new approaches to diabetic eye disease in China.

Collaboration on these projects has gone beyond Queen’s and has brought together experts from all over the globe, to ensure that the programmes are both clinically focused and needs-driven.

A global model

As the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) illustrate, so many global issues from health to education interconnect and create valuable synergies. In this vein, the implications of poor eye health are far reaching. Diabetic eye disease, for example, is the leading cause of global blindness for those in their working years and is a fast-growing problem in LMICs where the loss of the main breadwinner in a family can plunge them into extreme poverty.  

The NHS is an acknowledged global leader in universal health coverage and as seen in numerous schemes can contribute to the furthering of the SDGs. More specifically the NHS’ work on screening for diabetic eye disease is a leading example of excellent practice. The models and techniques employed by the NHS screening program are widely available on the internet, allowing anybody in any country to understand and learn from the practices employed in the UK. At the same time, through working with our counterparts overseas on eye health programmes, we continue to learn new insights in areas such as school vision screening, which can further improve the quality of care in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Our collaborations incorporate many different actors. Currently, with Orbis International, we are developing and scaling-up models of diabetic screening based on NHS practice and modified for low-resource settings. The first of these will be rolling out soon in Vietnam, and we expect more later in Africa, Latin America and Asia.

We have also been working on incorporating NHS software. Working with Health Intelligence, a provider of NHS image grading software, we are implementing a model for the Vietnam programme through the creation of a version of the software specifically designed for use in LMICs. Thus, there are so many ways and opportunities in which we can apply through an adaptive approach these NHS models in ways that are appropriate for low resource settings.

The need: global and local 

It has become apparent that to think of ‘global health’ doesn’t mean to exclude underserved areas that happen to be in higher income countries. At Queen’s, we also realise the need at home and are working to combat the disparities in care. We continue to work to understand the problems within Northern Ireland, especially as some of the postcodes in the country are among the poorest and most deprived in the UK.

As a response to this we have been working with a group of over a dozen institutions, as part of the Developing Eyecare Partnerships (DEP) project, a programme developed by the NHS with the goal of developing partnerships to create more efficient models of care We are using research to try to further improve the quality, efficiency and equity of care in Northern Ireland for diabetic eye disease, cataract surgery and school vision screening.

NHS as a driving force

There is no question then that the leading NHS institutions have been important drivers in our thinking, both here in Northern Ireland and globally. My work continues to focus on bringing equity of access not just for eye care but also as a result for communities more widely. Improved eyesight also brings wider world of educational and work opportunities in low-resource settings.

It is truly inspiring to be a part of the growing global health arena in Northern Ireland. There is a huge sense of momentum, driving forward programmes both in LMICs and in deprived areas of our own country. Being part of initiatives which use our own NHS models to improve care across the globe, whilst highlighting improvements and new initiatives which we can use to improve care throughout the whole of the UK, is extremely exciting and I am looking forward to what is to come. 

Professor Nathan Congdon, 
  • School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences
  • Centre for Public Health
  • Queens University Belfast 

Global Health: From National Beginnings to International Partnerships

At the end of June we reached a milestone in the Health Partnership Scheme (HPS) which entered into its seventh year implementation. After six years of global health partnerships it is clear that the model has really come of age. The stats speak for themselves.

In 2011, at the inception of the programme the target was to train 13,000 overseas health workers by 2015. In those four years over 38,000 had been trained and by June this year, following a two year extension over 84,000 health workers had been trained through projects in 31 countries. Impressive HPS figures abound but perhaps the next one to stagger me is that over 90,000 days were spent by UK health workers volunteering.  

This is the true legacy of the HPS and it is sure to be one which only continues to go from strength to strength. There is more engagement from UK institutions than ever before. During the programme over 130 NHS and Health and Academic Institutions from across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland formed partnerships with their counterparts in low- and middle-income countries, not only delivering invaluable training but also bringing improved skill sets, clinical knowledge and management experience back to an  NHS system facing many challenges.

Health Partnerships beyond the Health Partnership Scheme

The partnership model has also spread well beyond its original parameters with more funding approaches taking up the method than ever before. From Hub Cymru Africa to the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, several initiatives are strengthening and furthering the development of UK country and regional approaches to global health development. But it is not just the health partnership community which continues to expand the model, other DFID funding mechanisms are also incorporating the shared value element, and even further afield beyond the UK, organisations in the USA and in Europe are employing these methods.

The NHS - A global force

It is clear that health partnerships are contributing to the NHS’ positioning as a global force, providing a blueprint for other activity, including commercial opportunities which could see the NHS derive an income from engaging overseas. With such a wealth of knowledge harboured in the NHS, one such opportunity could, in the future, come from the deployment of UK health workers to middle and high income countries to assist with paid health system strengthening programmes.

Where once the development community was sceptical of ideas of ‘aid to trade’, it becoming increasingly clear that ODA spending can work to serve the interests of all, both overseas development aims and the wider interests of the UK. 

In Myanmar for example, as the nation continues to move forward with its own complex evolution, new and exciting opportunities are springing up for the UK health care sector to share knowledge and expertise with their local counterparts. From growing private sector investment particularly in the provision of medicines and equipment, to the development of training schemes and curricula o meet the depleted medical education system within the country. I am following with excitement our own expanding in-country presence with Health Education England.

A motor for innovation

A feature of this coming of age are the very diverse approaches that are emerging in the UK. From the dedicated global health policies in Wales to the specialised and thematic programmes within Northern Ireland, each nation is demonstrating innovation and impetus in their devolved states.

In England alone, regional actors are playing catalytic roles in fostering greater engagement. From the East of England where just a few weeks ago Anglia Ruskin University held a Sustainable Health Symposium bolstering the growing body of NHS Trusts and Universities taking up global health programmes, to the North West  where the Universities of Manchester and Salford together with the Global Health Exchange continue to forge new learning and volunteer engagement programmes, to Wessex where the Improving Global Health Leadership Development Programme is recruiting NHS volunteers to work with their counterparts in low-resource settings.

In this newsletter we start the task of ‘spotlighting’ this diversity. From the blog, interview and article captured in this month’s edition it is clear that this is an exciting time for the UK and its global health contribution and one that all countries and regions can continue to collaborate on. It is truly an admirable environment taking shape across the UK and one that collectively amounts to a distinctive and profoundly impressive UK offering to the goal of UHC for all.

THET is proud to be playing a modest role in enabling this to happen.

Ben Simms