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Improving Health at Home and Abroad

How overseas volunteering from the NHS benefits the UK and the world

British health volunteers have for many years played a major role in improving health for people in other countries. Whether as individuals or as part of larger schemes, they have transferred vital knowledge and skills whilst at the same time bringing back valuable experiences to the UK. Their work has helped to build strong international relationships and spread Britain’s influence around the globe. In a rapidly changing world, the role of these individuals and institutions is becoming ever more important.

The world has changed fundamentally in recent years – in health as in everything else. We are now all connected and interconnected at every level: facing the same risks from pandemics and non-communicable disease, relying on the same health workers, and sharing the same commitments to international development. Moreover, as a global leader in biomedical science the UK plays a major role in generating new knowledge, skills and technologies which benefit the world and contribute to our economy.

This interdependence means that it is vitally important that the UK health sector in general, and the NHS in particular, develops and maintains relationships with partners throughout the world. Many of these links are inter-governmental, contributing to disease surveillance through the World Health Organization (WHO), for example. Some are university and research based, sharing scientific discoveries, whilst others are commercial, exploiting British science and expertise. Some, too, are about using British resources to relieve illness and disease amongst the poorest peoples of the world.

Volunteering schemes have a tremendously important role to play in advancing health globally and facilitating knowledge and skills exchange between the NHS, NGOs and low and middle income countries. This report argues that great progress has been achieved in recent years in developing these partnerships. The challenge now is to fully realise their benefits by accelerating efforts to professionalise the scale, quality and organisation of these programmes.

The UK has a proud tradition of health workers volunteering overseas and of voluntary partnerships between British hospitals, universities and communities with their counterparts abroad. It also has many strong, experienced and well-established organisations that specialise in deploying UK health workers abroad, such as VSO and Merlin. The scope for building on this is enormous, according to the witnesses and contributors to this review, and would reap further gains for the UK in terms of service innovation, leadership skills, international standing and workforce development.

The review heard, however, that there are a number of ways in which the UK could and should be doing better. Working with developing countries is not an activity that should be taken on lightly, as there are risks as well as gains for both partners. Some volunteering schemes need to improve their own systems and processes to ensure that staff are better prepared, better organised and can achieve more. Overseas volunteering from the NHS needs to continue to become more professional and more ambitious: to move from a plethora of schemes to a movement. This report recommends how this can be done.