Tessa Richards: Do you have a global partner?

Tessa RichardsHow far does your interest in global health stretch? Far enough to have forged a link between your hospital or practice and a similar one in a low income country? If the answer is no but the idea appeals log on to www.thet.org, the website of the Tropical Health and Education Trust, or THET as the charity prefers to be called. THET has been guiding and supporting long term, low budget, health links between health professionals in the UK and their counterparts in low income countries for 20 years. Last week it launched a new drive for support. It chose a good launch venue.

The riverside room in the House of Lord was warm, welcoming, and full of stands. Those manning them were primed and proud to explain the history, purpose, and progress of their international partnerships. I met medical students from St George’s who talked enthusiastically about their new link with a medical school in Nepal. I spoke to a mental health nurse from East London, who explained how meeting the needs and priorities of his Southern partners (the guiding principle behind THET’s links) can reap reciprocal benefit. Running training programmes for health workers from Uganda and supporting them to develop their mental health services had taught his NHS trust a lot. Not least about how to shape culturally sensitive services.

The Kings THET Somaliland link has been running since 2000, and its training programmes include midwifery, paediatrics, anaesthetics, surgery, and mental health. Its now extending its reach and working with a UK based medical diaspora group to support healthcare workers in Zimbabwe (idu@kch.nhs.uk). Andy Leather, a surgeon who has led the project since its inception, is passionate about expanding medical horizons. His unit has pioneered new multidisciplinary undergraduate teaching courses on international health.

All links face a common challenge, Kesmi Tesfazghi, project coordinator for West Africa, admitted. The mutual feel good factor is not enough. Health partnerships need to show that their work makes a difference. THET has developed a tool kit to help monitor and evaluate international health links and will shortly publish an updated version of its guide to starting and maintaining them.

Professor Tony Wilson, professor of medicine in Emberara Hospital in Uganda, provided the 200 or so assembled health professionals, politicians and academics with a reality check. “The average age of the 9 million population we serve is 15 and we have less than a fifth of the drugs we need to treat patients with AIDS and TB,” he said. “People are lying on the floors, and daily we feed many who are close to starvation.”

“I see the politics and economics of donor aid from the receiving end,” he said, “and I don’t believe in the [pronouncements and pledges of the] G8 or the UK’s Commission for Africa. The sort of aid I believe in, is targeted aid (of the THET variety) because it helps build local capacity and sustain morale.”” His advocacy spurred applause, and Dr Andrew Purkiss, THET’s chief executive, provided further food for thought as he underlined that “Sub Saharan Africa carries 24 % of the world’s disease burden but has only 3% of its health workers.”

The assembled health professionals did not need to open the information packs they were handed as they departed. The message was clear. “Your skills and resources can make a difference – please think about deploying them.”

Tessa Richards is assistant editor, BMJ