Whilst humanitarian emergency responses frequently dominate headlines, there are also plentiful opportunities for experienced nurses and midwives to get involved with longer-term, sustainable development. Here we run through what volunteering placements often look like for nurses and midwives, and the professional benefits to be gained.
Why nurses and midwives are needed?
In many developing countries, healthcare systems are completely overstretched. Health workers may not receive adequate training and basic resources might be very scarce. Those living in remote, difficult-to-access areas, usually the poorest people, are likely to suffer the worst. By teaching local health workers in life-saving techniques and how to use essential equipment, volunteer nurses and midwives can extend and improve health services and save more lives. Maternal and neonatal health, and sexual and reproductive health are two main focus areas of many international development organisations, including VSO, and that’s where nurses and midwives can often bring the most value.
Adapting to the role
There are undoubtedly challenges to be faced when volunteering in a hospital or health facility in a marginalised community. You may not have access to resources we take for granted here in Ireland, such as running water, x-rays and ultrasounds, beds, private consultation rooms, mental health support, episiotomy scissors and common medications. It can also be upsetting seeing children and adults suffer from illnesses that are so easily preventable or non-existent in Ireland. Ways of working in African and Asian countries are usually quite different and can also take a bit of getting used to. This is why longer placements are important – they enable you to properly settle in, develop trusting relationships and collaborate to create positive impact. As our returned health volunteers testify, the rewards, both personal and professional, generally outweigh these initial challenges.
My placement has enabled me to share my skills to improve the lives of women and children in Tanzania, and the experience has also made me a better clinician.
- Siobhán Neville who volunteered as a paediatrician in Tanzania
What the role involves
All VSO’s roles involve sharing skills with local colleagues so that change is sustainable and lasts long after these volunteers return home to Ireland. For nurses and midwives, that means exchanging knowledge of medical practices and procedures in a hospital or health facility. Tasks can be very varied depending on the programme but may include the following:
- Training nurses and midwives in life-saving technique like resuscitation and how to use essential equipment
- Supporting communities to demand better health services
- Spreading awareness of sexual and reproductive health issues
- Advocating for the rights of pregnant adolescent girls
- Supporting health workers in data collection, reporting and analysis
Volunteers can increase efficiency in the hospital or health facility by passing on their knowledge of administration systems, such as the careful filing of patient records, and hygiene measures.
I’ve had the opportunity to get involved in a variety of projects, supervising students on their clinical placements, classroom based teaching, conducting a clinical audit on the outcomes of newborns, working on a small grant proposal for improving conditions on maternity ward and helping with a WHO-funded project to equip a maternal and child health clinic in a rural area relatively near to Gondar.
- Jacqueline McAuley who volunteered as a midwife trainer in Ethiopia
Continuing professional development
Working with an NGO can be a one-off experience or a career choice, depending on your situation. Calling a volunteer placement a “career break” is generally very misleading, as your placement equips you with many skills, both clinical and personal, which will benefit you throughout your medical career. You have the chance to learn about and treat a range of complicated conditions that aren’t as common in Ireland, such as TB, measles, HIV and other co-infections. As a midwife trainer, you deal with premature and complicated births on a regular basis, again greatly benefiting you professionally when you return to Ireland. You also learn about working with people from varying cultures and backgrounds, which is becoming increasingly important in a quickly diversifying Ireland.
VSO roles generally involve training and mentoring others, and so your leadership, management and collaboration skills. This can help you acquire more senior roles in the HSE when your placement ends. Previous VSO volunteers have also gone on to work for international organisations, such as the World Health Organisation, as well as advisory roles in large NGOs.
Over five years since world leaders created the Sustainable Development Goals, with attention now focused squarely on the global pandemic, you'd be forgiven for wondering: does anyone still care about the SDGs?