Overseas healthcare volunteering has long been seen as the preserve of medics and nurses - but managers are in high demand.

Overseas healthcare volunteering has long been seen as the preserve of medics and nurses - but managers are in high demand.

The traditional image of the caring overseas healthcare volunteer is often of doctors and nurses working under pressure in conflict zones - just think ER or Holby City.

But there is another, often overlooked professional whose skills are just as vital in the battle to provide basic healthcare in the developing world - the manager.

International development charity VSO has seen a significant increase in the number of requests for volunteers with senior health service management experience, but translating these requests into volunteers is not always easy.

'One of the challenges VSO faces is the limited awareness among healthcare professionals that we require volunteers with management skills,' says VSO health spokesperson Ruth Grearson. 'Rather than simply delivering healthcare, volunteers are increasingly needed to strengthen a hospital or clinic's ability to deliver care. This calls for skills in areas such as training, HR management, strategic planning and budgeting.

Teamwork in Cambodia

'We often come across a very traditional view of VSO when talking to healthcare managers. While they can see that volunteering overseas may be a professional development opportunity for their staff, it is not something they would consider for themselves. The reality is that managers' skills are in high demand, and they have a huge amount to gain, both personally and professionally, from using their expertise to improve healthcare in some of the poorest countries in the world.'

Nicky Jonas was granted a sabbatical from her job as general manager for surgery and anaesthetics at Hammersmith Hospitals trust in London in 2004 to volunteer with VSO. She spent two years working as a hospital management adviser at a 240-bed provincial referral hospital in north-west Cambodia.

'My role was to work with the director and senior management team in strengthening the hospital service. This included developing their financial activities, human resource and facility management systems,' she says.

'Initially I spent the first couple of months getting to know the hospital and the staff, to build up knowledge of how the health service and hospital worked and to form working relationships. I also conducted a needs assessment with the help of the staff, to set priorities for the projects I would be working on. Following that I started working with the management team, wards and departments to help make their wishes for the hospital become a reality.

'The most useful skills I had to pass on were problem-management techniques. The problems that exist in Cambodian hospitals are complex; many are caused by factors outside the hospital or beyond the control of the staff. So the staff found it hard to deal with the issues. I asked the staff to tell me why they were there and what would they like their place of work to look like in three years. They then took the time to examine strengths and weaknesses of these ideals and set objectives and priorities for the future. This allowed their present-day issues to be broken down into manageable bits and through encouragement and positive feedback we made real progress dealing with them.'

Barriers and benefits

But many healthcare professionals are worried about the impact any break will have on their career. 'VSO is committed to lowering the barriers faced by healthcare professionals who want to volunteer their skills overseas,' says Ms Grearson.

'We recently launched a partnership with the NHS in Scotland, which now means that staff volunteering under the scheme are treated as if on secondment while they're overseas with VSO. They have their pension contributions paid and are guaranteed a position at the same grade when they return. We're hoping that the recommendations from Global Health Partnerships and Lord Crisp's recent review will be accepted and that we can look into the possibility of a similar scheme in England.'

The increasing recognition of the part UK public sector workers, including healthcare managers, have to play in improving health systems in the developing world is important, as is the fact that these volunteers return to the UK with skills that benefit both their employer and their career. Many gain confidence in their communications skills and feel better prepared when handling diversity and conflict.

Kerry Davies, who spent almost three years as a hospital management adviser in Cambodia, says: 'Working in Cambodia enabled me to not only use existing professional skills, but gave me an in-depth understanding of health systems in a developing country, and the chance to work at levels far higher than I have done in my normal working environment.

'Working as a hospital management adviser involved sector-wide approaches, from developing the HR needs of the Ministry of Health to working at grass-roots level with village communities and community leaders.'

There is currently a high demand for healthcare managers in Cambodia, Indonesia, Mongolia and sub-Saharan Africa, in short and long-term placements. Volunteers are likely to be involved in developing hospital management systems through resource management, budget planning, staff development and training. Some may also be involved in quality assurance and standard-setting to improve the services, working with non-governmental organisations or with government health departments.

Volunteers must have at least two years' experience at senior management level in a hospital or health authority. VSO provides a comprehensive package for volunteers, which includes training before and after arrival in the country. Volunteers also receive a modest living allowance, return flights, accommodation, national insurance and pension contributions, visas and work permits, and three weeks holiday a year.

Visit www.vso.org.uk