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A government-funded scheme whereby doctors from Oxford's Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre (NOC) and researchers at NDORMS volunteer to conduct training and research in a number of African countries benefits not only the health services in the countries concerned, but also the professional development of the volunteering staff, a study has found.

The 88 volunteers from Oxford University Hospitals (OUH) NHS Foundation Trust who have taken part in the Primary Trauma Care and orthopaedic surgical training courses in sub-Saharan Africa were asked six months after their return to the UK to complete a questionnaire. Most of those who responded said their overseas experience had improved their practice within the NHS.

The study – 'Is overseas volunteering beneficial to the NHS? The analysis of volunteers' responses to a feedback questionnaire following experiences in low-income and middle-income countries' - was published in the BMJ.

The medics – who included consultant and registrar surgeons and anaesthetists - were taking part in the COSECSA Oxford Orthopaedic Link (COOL), a partnership programme between the College of Surgeons of East, Central and Southern Africa (COSECSA) and the University of Oxford's Nuffield Department of Orthopaedics, Rheumatology and Musculoskeletal Sciences (NDORMS).

The aim of the programme is to strengthen research and training in trauma and musculoskeletal impairment in 10 sub-Saharan countries: Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Since it was set up in 2012, COOL has delivered more than 60 surgery and care training courses.

One of the directors of the COOL programme is Professor Chris Lavy, who first went to Malawi in 1996, when there were no consultant orthopaedic surgeons in the country. There are now 12.

During his time in Africa, he set up two orthopaedic teaching hospitals – one each in Malawi and Zambia – as well as helping to set up national orthopaedic surgical and clinical officer training programmes in Malawi, and an international clubfoot treatment programme that now covers more than 15 countries.

"It's really pleasing to see that around a third of consultants at the NOC have taken part in the COOL programme, often using their annual leave to travel to Africa and deliver this training," Prof Lavy said.

"Over the years we have seen the advantages of this scheme on the health services of the host nations. There are an estimated five billion people in the world who can't access safe, affordable, timely surgery, so sharing our expertise with colleagues in Africa has obvious benefits. Many of our trainees have told us how much more confident they are treating their patients, which is important when they are working in isolated outreach clinics.

"But in this study, we wanted to see what the effect was on the professional development of NHS staff. We used the Knowledge and Skills Framework (KSF) and Leadership Framework (LF), two tools that are recognised by employers as a measure of this."

Eighty-five of the 88 NHS volunteers who participated in the initiative responded to the questionnaire. The results demonstrated clearly that their overseas volunteering experience improved their practice within the NHS.

"Surgeons in training and patients are the same the world over," said Mr Max Gibbons, a Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon who took part in a hip and knee course in Zambia.

"What these courses give to all of us is a greater understanding of how we all share the same problems. It is an opportunity to share our surgical experiences, which is of great benefit to all our patients."

Prof Lavy added: "What we found was that many of the volunteers have come back from working in these challenging settings with improved leadership and communications skills, as well as better self-awareness and an increased motivation to deliver a good service.

"This study shows that the skills gained while volunteering abroad are valuable for professionals working in the NHS, and suggest that such overseas service should be recommended as an important part of a consultant's or registrar's professional development," Prof Lavy said.

The COOL programme is funded through two grants from the Health Partnership Scheme, which is funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) for the benefit of the UK and partner country health sectors and managed by the Tropical Health Education Trust (THET).