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Dr Gerda Pohl shares her experiences
Over the last 12 years I have spent a total of 54 months in Nepal, supporting primary health care services in very remote rural areas in a voluntary capacity.
Wanting to be useful where it’s most needed was my main reason for choosing medicine - I set out to acquire skills which are transferrable all over the world. After a spell in Rwanda as a medical student I worked to gain the skills required to work in rural hospitals; medicine, surgery, paediatrics and obs & gynae.
I then trained as a GP, which I never suspected would be so challenging and rewarding! It taught me that good primary care is essential to delivering accessible and affordable healthcare. So my idea of becoming a mission doctor in Africa turned into planning three years volunteering in primary care projects in Nepal, and later helping to found PHASE Worldwide.
PHASE employs health workers to work alongside government staff in remote rural health centres to provide a service, teach essential life skills and raise awareness of health issues and people’s rights to healthcare and education.
My role in Nepal - and that of over 40 other GP volunteers who have worked with PHASE in the last 5 years - is to be a clinical mentor and teacher to the health workers. Volunteers spend about 1-2 weeks with them in their remote villages where they see patients together and advise on clinical management, as well as running tutorials to improve health workers’ skills and confidence.
Most volunteers are amazed at how much can be done with very limited means and they come away with a sense of gratitude, humility and admiration for local people’s resilience.
Many also comment on how this makes them go back to General Practice in the UK refreshed and refocused on what it’s all about; caring for individuals in distress, improving services and passing on our skills. Several of our volunteers have (re-) discovered their love for teaching while working with PHASE. The relationships built with local health professionals are more valuable for this work than those built with patients; helping them to gain confidence and feel valued and supported, so they can do a better job for their population.
One of the most important things I’ve learned in Nepal is that my teenage vision of the benevolent doctor treating poor children in the developing world is not just out-dated, it is actually damaging to those children and their families. It enforces the ingrained prejudice that only Westerners care to provide good health services and undermines the already weak local systems.
On a personal level, in addition to the satisfaction inherent in the work, I have found a peer group of GPs who are interested in global health work and who are a great resource both for my own personal development and to help with project development here in Nepal.
Have you volunteered abroad – or are you planning to?
How did it benefit you, both personally and professionally?
For more information or to get involved with PHASE visit http://www.phaseworldwide.org/ or http://phasenepal.org/
If you’re interested in volunteering abroad you can learn more here