Overseas aid

In our second CPD feature about voluntary work, Janet Wright looks beyond local boundaries for practical results

You can do well by doing good, as numerous voluntary workers have discovered. The skills and experience you pick up can be of immediate benefit. And working in a different, often unfamiliar context provides an abundant source of insights to refresh your reflective learning (see ‘Studying the benefits of voluntary work’, Frontline 3 August 2011).

All these rewards are multiplied when you do voluntary work abroad. Health workers are in demand for the vital skills they can bring to developing countries. If they’re staying more than a few weeks they may be paid a small amount, similar to local wages, and some agencies will pay fares for long-term volunteers.

For students and new graduates especially, volunteering abroad offers the perfect blend of travel and work experience.

‘Work placements in unfamiliar environments can increase student employability, by improving skills taught to date while gaining new skills such as cultural awareness,’ says Amanda Summers, a student from the University of Nottingham who spent two months working in a Malaysian care home. ‘Students will also be exposed to conditions that they are less likely to experience in the UK, such as malnutrition, further broadening their skill base.’

Colleen Kiley, who helped set up a physio centre for children with cerebral palsy in Vietnam, got a band 6 job with West Suffolk hospital trust in Bury St Edmunds on her return. She says ‘My experience boosted my confidence hugely, and prepared me for the move from band 5 to band 6.’  

Internet access

The experience expands work horizons too, with added help from internet access that’s now available around most of the world.

‘I came across a number of conditions with which I was unfamiliar and thanks to the internet I was able to find out more detail about what I was dealing with and what interventions were appropriate,’ says Alison Sheeley, who provided holiday cover in a clinic for disabled children in Nepal.

‘This was also where I began to realise that a lot of musculoskeletal type skills can be apply in other physio setting with a bit of thought.’

But working abroad can be a disorienting experience for volunteers of any age, especially if they’re the only foreigner in the district.

‘People are often quite isolated,’ says Tina Everett of ADAPT, the CSP’s professional network for physiotherapists in international health and development. And it’s not just about loneliness.

‘You have to be very adaptable,’ she says. ‘Volunteers are often working with power cuts and water shortages. Access to the internet may be difficult – you can’t always get it when you want it. Travelling long distances and learning to do without what seem like necessities when you’re living over here.’

The workload, too, may differ from what a volunteer was expecting. The ebb and flow of international aid may mean a programme has one-year start-up money but no funding after that. While many physios improvise without so much as a crutch, some discover state-of-the-art equipment lying idle because no one was taught how to use it.

ADAPT promotes sharing of information, and supports CSP volunteers by putting them in touch with people who can help or offer advice, before they go and while they’re abroad. As well as keeping in touch while volunteers are abroad, it helps them settle back in when they return.

‘They can email our secretary at any time with queries, and if she can’t answer she’ll put it out to the members,’ says Ms Everett. ‘If people want a mentor who’s worked in a similar specialism or part of the world, we’ll try to help them find someone among our membership. Many of our members offer to do this, because they wish they had had that mentorship while they were overseas themselves.’

ADAPT has also been a great resource both on iCSP and through their newsletters,’ says Zillah Whitehouse, a long-term volunteer with agency AIM International at a university and teaching hospital in Mbarara, Uganda.

Tina Everett encourages volunteers to join ADAPT, giving them access to the other members and the wealth of relevant experience they can share.

Safe insurance

‘Check you’re fully insured following the guidelines of the country you’re going to,’ she warns would-be volunteers. ‘Volunteers sometimes find it difficult to maintain CSP membership because of the cost,’ she adds, ‘but we encourage members to, for CPD and access to information.’

CSP members benefit from professional liability insurance for temporary work abroad, adds Ms Mueller Winkler, as long as they fulfil the national registration requirements and hold a full CSP membership. fl

ADAPT and survive

* ADAPT, the CSP’s professional network for physios in international health and development, runs study days addressing issues that are relevant to members’ CPD.  Places are still available on ADAPT’s tenth-anniversary study day, 23 September, at CSP’s London office, Bedford Row, £20-£40.


lessons learned by overseas volunteers


  • ‘I learned not to accept things at face value. Everyone will give a very optimistic view of their service, so it is important to check the reality. And I learned to be really clear when giving an explanation’ – Heather Hornung, Nagorno Karabakh
  • ‘Working cross-culturally, I found myself questioning my own practice. Reflective learning and peer discussion is essential: it is good to learn from and challenge each other’ – Zillah Whitehouse, Uganda
  • ‘Communication skills are challenged. Students need to find imaginative ways to encourage patient participation in treatments’ – Amanda Summers and Anja Hudson, Malaysia
  • ‘Volunteering often demands that you work alone without professional support. So it helps to develop you as an independent person who is aware of their boundaries, limitations and responsibilities’ – Alison Sheeley, Nepal
  • ‘I encourage therapists to focus on learning how nationals in the country view disability and the disabled, and also to see how tasks may usefully be divided in different ways from those they are used to’ – Jean Watson, leprosy care worldwide
  • ‘My confidence as a trainer and a supervisor has increased immensely. And I often had to come up with creative ways of teaching, such as acting out the gross motor scale’ – Colleen Kiley, Vietnam
  • ‘I gained a wealth of experience to support my CPD and help me with work in the NHS, particularly in clinical governance and teaching. I learned to use reflective practice as an important aspect of this’ – Clare Grimble, Nepal
Janet Wright

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