Published: 15/07/2004, Volume II4, No. 5914 Page 33

Broaden your horizons by offering your expertise to a less wealthy health service, says Ana Paula Nacif

It is no surprise that most healthcare professionals do not have much spare time. A break from the day-to-day running of departments could offer a much-needed fresh perspective on healthcare issues, but time is too short.Leaving it all behind for a year or two and exploring healthcare in a far-flung country could be a solution.

Margaret Fraser was a tuberculosis surveillance officer at Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham strategic health authority when she decided she wanted to work abroad.She signed up with Voluntary Service Overseas and ended up working for two years in Vanuatu, a group of 83 islands in the South West Pacific, near Fiji.

'It was a great experience.My job was to assist the lymphatic filariasis control programme, which is part of a global strategy to eliminate the disease worldwide, ' she says.

'I was part of well-organised programme. I developed health education materials, monitoring and evaluation and carried out training on data management and programme planning for staff out in the provinces.'

VSO is an international development charity working in 74 countries in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, the Pacific region and eastern Europe.Many only have very basic healthcare programmes, and care needs outweigh the resources available.

Volunteer work can have a positive impact on those communities, but VSO is struggling to find healthcare managers to share their expertise.

Although the posts on offer are likely to be similar to those in the UK, the challenges healthcare professionals working overseas face are greater and volunteers do have to stretch their management muscles.

In her placement, Ms Fraser learnt Bislama, the local language, and had to get to grips with a strong hierarchical system.

The challenges are great but so are the rewards, she claims: 'People have different priorities and do things in different ways.This kind of experience challenges your ideas about life. It is a further challenge to the skills that you already have in public health.'

The NHS is starting to recognise that career breaks can be an effective way to value staff and keep them motivated.And volunteering abroad can present an invaluable opportunity for managers to develop their careers and learn about different ways of coping with a highly pressurised health service.

VSO recruitment information: 020 8780 7500 or e-mail: enquiry@vso. org. uk www. vso. org. uk