Volunteering offers stressed-out NHS managers the chance to make a difference in the developing world and learn valuable new skills that can give them an edge when they return home.
Health management is not traditionally seen as the sexy side of the health world. TV programmes such as ER and Holby City are based on doctors' battle to save lives, rather than the good management needed to make this possible.
However, VSO, the international development charity, is currently seeking NHS managers with at least three years' experience in management roles in acute trusts, primary care trusts or NHS partner organisations to support life-saving improvements to health services in countries from Indonesia to Malawi.
The charity knows that managers in the NHS are often lacking in time and stressed out, striving to deliver better care but battling with constant change, staff management issues and a mountain of targets. Volunteering with VSO could allow them to take a step outside that world and share their valuable experience and skills, working with local colleagues to overcome some of the biggest health inequalities of the 21st century.
The charity is keen to stress that volunteering is a career making, rather than career breaking opportunity. As a former VSO volunteer and current general manager of imaging and patient access at Imperial College Healthcare trust, I found the experience beneficial to my career.
I volunteered with VSO between 2004 and 2006, working as a hospital management adviser, building staff capacity and strengthening healthcare systems in Cambodia. This involved supporting local managers, helping devise new strategies and systems, and managing staff services and finances.
Sink or swim
While I was challenged in my previous positions in the NHS, volunteering in Cambodia helped me develop a new range of skills in a short time. It was a classic case of sink or swim - working in a different culture and supporting local managers to squeeze every penny from a limited budget gave me a real understanding of how positive health changes can be made from limited financial resources.
I was able to motivate and enable staff to own and drive forward change on a scale they had not previously experienced in the Cambodian health system. We improved quality and hygiene with few resources, but much enthusiasm and commitment.
The UK government is now aiming to make it financially easier for people in the NHS to volunteer. Earlier this year, it announced a new£13m fund to pay pension contributions for public sector workers who volunteer their skills overseas. The fund is open to anyone in the NHS who undertakes a placement with a volunteering agency, such as VSO, for seven to 24 months. Many trusts will also agree a career break to allow managers to volunteer for VSO. I was able to take a 26-month career break and return to my previous post at the end of my placement.
It is equally important that the personal and professional skills VSO volunteers gain on placements are channelled back into the NHS on their return. The ability to lead a diverse work force, tackle health inequalities and manage diseases that do not respect national borders, such as TB, malaria and HIV, are skills that are greatly needed in the UK.
While the NHS works to achieve a world class service, it has a rich pool of management expertise, which could play a vital role internationally, helping to improve people's health across Africa and Asia.
If you are looking for a challenge and the chance to see your skills improve the level of healthcare provided to people in developing countries, then I suggest you give it a try.
For more on volunteering abroad, see HSJ blogs, where you will find posts by Samuel Johnson, a volunteer in Swaziland.