I came to the UK in 1989, from India, as an IMG (international medical graduate). I am immensely proud of the huge contributions made by IMGs to the NHS, to the diaspora communities here in the UK and their home countries.
Whilst my personal and professional journey as an IMG has been full of challenges, I have had the opportunity of collaborating with many wonderful colleagues, patients and carers. In 2005 I had a major complex neurosurgery on my neck, and I had the opportunity to see the NHS as a patient. I am immensely grateful to many colleagues who looked after me through this challenging time.
Soon after my recovery, I was attracted towards health inequality work, initially starting as a supervisor for small research projects undertaken by my medical students. I was particularly focusing on inequalities in breast cancer care faced by Asian women – right from inequalities in screening rates to cancer diagnosis, treatment and survival rates.
I soon found out that the word ‘cancer’ carried major stigma in South Asian communities, with a lot of challenges faced by women in accessing not just clinical care but wider emotional and peer-to-peer support. This led me to research this area in more detail and organise focus groups, and meet with many patients and carers to see how best to help these women in their difficult journey with breast cancer.
This led me to set up the Asian Breast Cancer Support Group in 2011 with a unique concept of healthcare professionals working with patients and carers as equals, without the power and privilege gap which is usually encountered in traditional healthcare settings.
The group went from strength to strength, with regular meetings and focus groups. Group members actively contributed to various research and service improvement projects, bringing in their lived experiences. Listening to their stories influenced me personally, made me more empathic towards their plight, and more focussed to find innovative solutions to connect with these hard-to-reach communities.
It was amazing to see these women in their traditional South Asian dresses share their lived experiences despite their personal burden of cancer. The group meetings gave an opportunity for a multidisciplinary team to interact with the women and their carers, and understand the unique challenges they faced.
In 2018, we extended the remit of the group to include other cancer patients besides breast cancer. During the COVID-19 pandemic we learnt to undertake all of our cancer awareness and support work virtually, with group emails, webinars, messaging via Twitter and a WhatsApp group.
Our Asian Cancer Support Group is making good progress with its objectives, attracting many more new members and sharing the learnings from breast cancer care to other cancers as well. Greater patient engagement and empowerment is helping to affirm their experiences.
I believe that many IMGs like me have been involved in projects supporting South Asian patients, both within the UK and their homelands, and this South Asian Heritage Month is an opportunity to celebrate these contributions.
Anil Jain is a consultant radiologist in Manchester and a member of BMA council, the BMA consultants committee and the BMA equality, diversity and inclusion advisory group