Engaging medical diasporas with their country of origin

While discussion about the contributions of the African diaspora to their countries of origin is often centred on their financial and business resources, less attention is afforded to their participation in healthcare. Despite an attempt by the Ugandan government to engage with its diaspora community through a diaspora desk, we still lack a comprehensive engagement plan for medical diasporas, even though these groups could be vital to addressing the migration of skilled healthcare workers and the consequent depleted workforce in low resource countries.

The UK based Uganda Diaspora Health Foundation (UDHF) has attempted to influence indigenous health institutions and policies in Uganda, through formed partnerships and collaborations with UK based organisations, including: East London NHS Foundation Trust; C3 (Collaborating for Health); the Uganda UK Health Alliance; and Time To Change, a programme led by the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness.

Through continual engagement with health policy makers in Uganda and an understanding of global health needs, the UDHF decided it could play an active part in halting the rise of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in both Uganda and the UK. Rates of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, chronic respiratory diseases, and mental illness are rapidly increasing worldwide, especially in low and middle income countries.

The looming crisis presented by the global epidemic of NCDs (which is a health, social, economic, political, and humanitarian challenge all at once) is increasingly observed, and formed a key rationale for our health initiative. There is also a recognition that much can and must be done to delay or prevent the rise of these diseases, before the cost of treating them threatens to overwhelm health services in Uganda.

However, the UDHF recognised that it is only by working together that this challenge can be addressed, and so, we have worked to develop partnerships with key global health organisations.

One example of a successful partnership was when the UDHF coordinated an educational awareness initiative in February 2014—in collaboration with C3 (Collaborating for Health), Uganda Non-Communicable Disease Alliance, Heartsounds Uganda, Butabika Hospital, Uganda Nurses and Midwives Union, and the Ugandan Ministry of Health—towards the prevention of NCDs among people with mental health problems in Uganda.

We coordinated a workshop with participants including nurses, mental health service users (peer support workers), and student nurses. This partnership, which health diasporas were at the centre of, has provided a real opportunity to raise awareness among health personnel and lay workers about the challenge and preventable nature of NCDs, in relation to both physical and mental health. It also provided them with the knowledge and skills necessary to influence, inform, educate, and support their local communities and client groups.

Health diasporas are key to bringing learning to their home countries. They can adapt their skills and knowledge to creatively overcome the poverty gaps by building on existing good practice, using established and effective networks and relationships where possible, and ensuring longer term sustainability and impact.

Our achievements so far highlight the need and opportunities to bring in other resources and partnerships if we are to tackle health priorities for low and middle income countries, including delivery of the post 2015 Millennium Development Goal agenda. The role of the diaspora in bringing together such organisations and empowering their home country, while also learning from it, is very much apparent here and was crucial to the success of this particular NCDs prevention initiative in Uganda.

Moses wasswa Mulimira is a post graduate research student in evidence based healthcare studies, Oxford University. He is the co-founder of the Uganda Diaspora Health Foundation.

Mariam Namulindwa Aligawesa is co-vice chair at the Butabika-East London Link.  She is co-founder of the Uganda Diaspora Health Foundation.

Dr Gerald Mutung is head of non-communicable diseases at the Ministry of Health, Uganda.

Amy Stoddard is a cognitive behavioural therapist, a consultant writer, and the strategic development lead for the Uganda Diaspora Health Foundation.

We have read and understood BMJ policy on declaration of interests and declare the following interests: None.