Going abroad

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What to consider

doctor with child

The benefits of UK doctors working internationally are immeasurable - the costs are minimal.

Volunteering abroad in resource-poor settings can be beneficial to you and your career, your patients, the NHS and the country in which you choose to spend time.

To get the most out of the opportunity and to make sure there’s benefit to the host country too, it’s important to carefully research the country, health system and organisation where you will be working, and to understand the key local health issues.

While every attempt has been made to cover all the issues that doctors and relevant authorities should consider, we cannot guarantee the information on this and subsequent pages is an exhaustive list of the information and support individuals should be aware of. 

  • Reasons for volunteering

    Individuals who volunteer abroad often acquire personal and professional skills that are transferable to the NHS. This can only lead to benefits for staff and for patients.

    Global Engagement, HEE (Health Education England)

    It is important to consider your motivations for volunteering overseas, the impact you will make, and the needs of the community you will be working in.

    Ask yourself the following questions:

    • What are the needs and expectations likely to be where I want to go?
    • What can I offer?
    • How long can I go for?
    • What do I want to do?
    • What do I expect to get out of it?
    • What will happen when I come back?
  • Benefits

    Benefits to host countries

    The UK has a long history of supporting international healthcare initiatives, particularly in low-resource settings, with UK doctors contributing their knowledge to healthcare systems around the world in various ways. This ongoing commitment and support is vital for nations with weak or under-resourced health systems. Providing direct care can have significant short-term benefits for the communities where you volunteer, especially during emergencies. Roles that involve sharing your skills and experience can have a longer-term impact by contributing to the education and training of your overseas colleagues. This transfer of skills and knowledge plays an important role in capacity building and health systems strengthening in low and middle-income countries.

     

    Benefits to the NHS and its patients

    With an increasingly ethnically diverse population, the NHS benefits in both the short and long-term from having staff with cross-cultural experience and awareness. Working in resource-poor health systems with low staff levels and limited access to equipment, diagnostics and medicines will give you the opportunity to hone your clinical skills. In these settings, medical volunteers gain experience of managing a diverse spectrum of diseases and injuries. By volunteering abroad, you are also likely to have the opportunity to gain experience working in small, multidisciplinary teams and to develop skills in allocating resources, planning and monitoring initiatives, and teaching or supervising groups. These skills are useful and transferable to working in the NHS. They will help you to adapt to changes in the UK healthcare system and to innovate when it comes to delivery of patient care.

     

    Benefits to you and your career

    Volunteering globally provides an opportunity for students, trainees and fully trained doctors to develop non-clinical skills in communication, teamwork, leadership and management. These experiences can help you to identify career paths for your professional life and contribute to your personal development. Volunteering can have a positive impact on your resilience, work satisfaction and retention upon return from overseas placements.

  • Have you thought about...?

    • The personal, professional and potential service impact of taking time out of employment and training.
    • Giving as much notice possible, as this can increase your chances of time out of training or employment being approved.
    • The impact on your immigration status if you are subject to visa requirements. Spending time out of the UK may affect you coming back to work in the UK or impact future visa applications. The BMA’s Immigration advice service is available to help members with these issues.
    • The effect on your pension, as members of the NHS pension scheme may cease to become pensionable during a break in employment (see in particular our FAQs on direction status, authorised absences and refund of contributions).
    • The immigration and professional registration requirements in the country where you will be working. Depending on the duration and type of work you will be doing, you may need a work or other type of visa. You will also need to join the local medical register before starting any clinical work.
    • Personal safety or health issues that may arise while you are overseas, particularly if you are working in a conflict or emergency situation. You should regularly check the travel advice and alerts from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for the area where you will be working.
    • Specialist training that may be helpful when working in challenging situations. This will depend on the context where you will be working and may include, for example, short courses on infectious diseases, use of personal protective equipment, security in conflict zones and working with particularly vulnerable groups, such as victims of torture.

    Duration

    Consider how much time you are able to take out of training or employment to work abroad. Longer placements (at least 6 months) are generally more beneficial to doctors and their host communities, as it takes time to become proficient with different disease profiles and new ways of working.

    If you are considering a short placement, you should think carefully about what impact you can have and identify what you can achieve and contribute in a short period of time.

     

    Sustainability

    Consider how sustainable your impact, or the impact of the initiative you are volunteering with, will be. Think about how you can best use your skills and knowledge to address local needs in the timeframe you have available. Projects that build the capacity of local healthcare professionals can have significant positive impacts long after you have returned to the UK.

     

    Wider impact

    Consider the impact your work may have on the wider health system of your host country. While medical volunteers can make many positive contributions, their presence can also have negative effects. These include providing an incentive not to employ enough local health workers and supporting parallel health services which undermine national health systems.

    You can minimise the unintended negative effects of the work you participate in overseas by carefully researching the organisations you are volunteering with, including how they are funded and whether they have links to the local or national health service.

  • Inspiration

    Connect with BMA members engaged in international medical volunteering, read and write blogs, and share volunteer opportunities.

    Join the conversation on connecting doctors

    Apply for financial support from the BMA Humanitarian Fund. Previous recipients used their grants to deliver impactful, sustainable and innovative health projects in low-income countries around the world.

    Read their case studies and apply on our website

    Have a look at the top entries from our ‘Doctors as volunteers’ poster competition. The competition is a celebration of volunteering and its benefits, which is open to individual volunteers and charitable organisation.

    Check out the most recent winners and browse other top submissions by region

    Listen to our podcast episode on ‘working abroad’, featuring interviews with two doctors who chose to volunteer abroad as juniors.

    Listen to ‘Doctors’ notes’ – a podcast by the BMA

    Check out our multimedia digital feature exploring different types of volunteering undertaken by three BMA members across their careers.

    Read (and watch) ‘Care across boundaries’

    Read about Dr Gerda Pohl's experiences of volunteering in Nepal with PHASE Worldwide.

    Join the conversation on connecting doctors

    Read more blogs from doctors who’ve volunteered abroad.

    Browse the connecting doctors archive on volunteering

  • Resources to help you think it through

    Doctors working in conflicts and emergencies – an ethical toolkit (BMA, 2017)

    This toolkit covers:

    • The fundamental principles of medical ethics
    • Humanitarianism, international law and medical ethics
    • Medical impartiality
    • Common areas of ethical concern in conflicts and emergencies
    • Sources for further advice

    Ethical toolkit for doctors working in conflicts and emergencies

     

    Guidance for trainees planning to volunteer or work overseas (HEE, 2017)

    This guidance covers:

    • Considerations when choosing a placement
    • Personal safety and resilience
    • Pre-deployment education and preparation
    • The impact of volunteering on NHS employment benefits
    • Registration and license to practise while abroad

    Guidance for trainees planning to volunteer or work overseas

     

    Supporting NHS staff who are volunteers (NHS Employers, 2016)

    This guidance will be of use to employers and staff seeking to volunteer. The guidance covers:

    • Managing volunteering requests
    • The impact of volunteering on an employee’s terms and conditions
    • Doctors as volunteers
    • Financial support for volunteers
    • Virtual volunteering

    Supporting NHS Staff who are Volunteers

     

    Engaging in global health: The framework for voluntary engagement in global health by the UK health sector (DFID & DHSC, 2014)

    This high-level framework includes:

    • The policy context and case for voluntary engagement in global health by the UK health sector
    • Scope, focus and standards of good practice for effective health partnerships
    • Tools and practical support for volunteers
    • How to take forward action to support international engagement

    Engaging in Global Health: The Framework for Voluntary Engagement in Global Health by the UK Health Sector

     

    The Academy of Medical Royal College International Forum Volunteering Statement (AoMRC, 2013)

    The statement sets out:

    • The benefits of healthcare professionals engaging in global health
    • The UK’s role in supporting the global health agenda
    • The barriers to volunteering that health professionals face
    • How medical royal colleges can facilitate volunteering

    Academy of Medical Royal College's statement on Volunteering

     

    Improving Health at Home and Abroad: How overseas volunteering from the NHS benefits the UK and the world (APPG on Global Health, 2013)

    This report addresses:

    • The role of NHS staff in advancing health globally through volunteering abroad.
    • The benefits of transfer of skills and knowledge sharing.
    • The opportunities that exist for the UK and developing countries from improving the scale and quality of volunteering programmes

    Improving Health at Home and Abroad

     

    NHS Employers Volunteering Pack (PDF, 2010)

    This pack provides employers with advice on:

    • Recruitment
    • Training and induction
    • Managing volunteers
    • Problem solving

    NHS Employers Volunteering pack: Staff as Volunteers

     

    Global health partnerships: The UK contribution to health in developing countries (Lord Crisp, 2007)

    This report considers:

    • Steps for developing more equal and respectful health partnerships between low- and high-income countries
    • Developing priorities and solutions based on needs identified and expressed by local people
    • Two-way knowledge exchanges, recognising that the UK has much to learn from resource-poor settings
    • Global scale-up of training, education and employment of health workers
    • Evidence-based approaches, systematic dissemination of good practice and effective use of new technology

    Global health partnerships: The UK contribution to health in developing countries