In the first of a series of online columns charting her experiences as a development volunteer in Cambodia, Patricia Sloane explains why she is taking the plunge into her new role and how she expects it to help her after she returns to the NHS

In October I'll be taking a break from my job as a director for Tameside and Glossop primary care trust to work in the Banteay Meanchey province of north west Cambodia.

The two-year placement is part of charity VSO’s health programme for Cambodia and my brief is to work in two referral hospitals in Bamteay Meanchey and travel to surrounding health centres. I will work with the hospital director, other senior staff and the VSO nursing adviser to strengthen the management of the hospital and links with the other health centres.

I have always wanted to work in developing countries and now I have the skill set and the right personal circumstances to do it.

The PCT has supported me by arranging a career break similar to that adopted by NHS Scotland and VSO. I see this as an opportunity to enhance my skills in a way the NHS could not facilitate. I have travelled extensively in the past, which has improved my ability to adapt to different cultures and societal norms.

I will miss the day-to-day mentorship and support from colleagues in the NHS and will be working hard to keep my networks while I am away. Once I started to talk about my overseas placement, I soon realised the extent to which others in the NHS have worked in developing countries.

In discussion with a director in NHS North West, I have been involved in scoping out the potential for the local NHS to respond to Lord Crisps’ recommendations in Global Health Partnerships: theUK contribution to health in developing countries. We will soon be sharing this with other stakeholders in the North West to gauge whether we can focus the enthusiasm of individuals and organisations to maximise the NHS's impact in supporting global health development.

Challenges ahead

There will be many personal and professional challenges: adapting to life in a new culture, learning to communicate in Khmer and working in a health system that has a different infrastructure, people skills and processes.

In my role, there will be major challenges about getting to grips with the basic public health impact of infectious disease, malnutrition and maternal and child health. But that provides the opportunity for me to make a real impact.

But this is a two-way opportunity for learning. I will develop skills that I can apply back in the NHS, especially working in a cash-strapped system. I also see working in a system that does not have the investment in major capital infrastructure of large hospitals as an opportunity to consider more focus on near-patient solutions for delivery and testing. While I am in Cambodia, I am also keen to link with the NHS National Technology Adoption hub.

VSO invests a lot of time in training for volunteers, exploring whether volunteering overseas is the right decision for the potential volunteer and preparing them to work in developing countries.

We talk about creating a world-class NHS, but in the North West we want to take that further and put the world into world class.

My brief for Cambodia

  • Mentor and coach the hospital director and senior hospital staff to advise on all resource management, planning, project implementation, monitoring and evaluation.

  • Assist in developing the annual operational plan.

  • Work with Mongkul Borei hospital management to increase their hospital assessment score in conjunction with the University Research Council.

  • Improve systems of referral.

  • Support the multi-disciplinary paediatric team to improve waste services for children with HIV/Aids, malnutrition, diarrhoea, acute respiratory infections and needing emergency treatment and care.

  • Support the multi-disciplinary obstetrics team to improve services for mothers and babies, particularly in relation to HIV/Aids, early referral and improving practice and skills and developing strategies to reduce maternal mortality and morbidity.

  • Support the planning and implementation of projects to improve waste management and hygiene.

  • Support collection and accurate reporting of hospital activity for the Ministry of Health.

  • Act as the VSO provincial health team co-ordinator.

What is VSO?

VSO is an international development charity that works through professional volunteers who live and work at the heart of communities in 34 countries around the world. Working in partnership with local colleagues, they share their skills and expertise to help find long-term solutions to poverty.

The charity recruits skilled and experienced professionals from a wide range of backgrounds including health, education and business. Health management professionals are needed to develop hospital management systems through staff development, budget planning and resource management, particularly inCambodia.

VSO volunteers usually have a professional qualification in their field as well as a minimum of at least two years' experience. As well as professional skills, they must have the right personal qualities, which include confidence, flexibility and the ability to work effectively with others. Volunteer placements can last from two weeks to two years, with shorter-term assignments aimed at those with a high level of experience.

In return, VSO offers a comprehensive volunteer package including return flights, basic accommodation, a local living allowance, NI contributions for the period of service (or country equivalent), insurance, comprehensive pre-departure and in-country training as well as support from a dedicated VSO team on the ground.

Look out for Patricia Sloan's regular online column from Cambodia starting in December.