Doctors Worldwide

Doctors Worldwide Training Course 2017 – An Introduction to Humanitarian Work

Doctors Worldwide Training Course 2017 – An Introduction to Humanitarian Work 

  Written by Sonya Ahmed

How do you store clean drinking water for an entire town devastated by a tsunami?  What are the priorities in setting up a maternal health project in an area where women give birth at home? Would you work with local militia to deliver food to a mountain community?   

Just some of the questions discussed at the two-day, Doctors Worldwide training course, held in London, earlier this year.  The course has been held in various cities over the last ten years – Manchester, London, Birmingham and Istanbul. The course is titled ‘An Introduction to Humanitarian Medical Work’, however, many of the lectures and group scenarios cover complex issues, relevant for workers who already have field experience.


Thirty-four participants attended this year’s course. They came from a diverse range of healthcare backgrounds – newly qualified junior doctors, specialist doctors in anaesthetics, elderly care medicine and psychiatry, GPs, specialist nurse practitioners, dentists and medical students. A common misconception is that only certain specialities, such as Emergency Medicine, Surgery and Orthopaedics, are needed in humanitarian / development work, but in fact, just about every field of clinical expertise can be helpful, depending on the context.  


“Thank you for the superb course, teaches you nuts and bolts of humanitarian medicine-very comprehensive”  

On Day 1, lectures and group sessions were focused on Emergency Response. Dr Najeeb Rehman, A&E Consultant and Doctors Worldwide board member, delivered a lecture about the Sphere standards of humanitarian aid. Set up in 1997, the Sphere standards are a set of evidence-based conditions to promote best practice and ensure that aid recipients are treated with dignity. To illustrate the standards in practice, Dr Rehman spoke about three types of emergencies that he had been involved with – earthquake, flooding and conflict.  


Dr Andrew Lee, Public Health specialist and lecturer at the University of Sheffield, discussed needs assessment and the top ten priorities in an emergency, including measles vaccination and water and sanitation. Participants were asked to consider the practical and logistical challenges faced in the field. So, how would you store clean drinking water in a town without any working utilities? One option is to use a water bladder – a huge, inflatable rubber container, that can be placed on any flat ground and is resistant to harsh climates. The largest bladders can store up to 100,000 litres of water. 

After lunch, participants were split into groups, to take part in a simulated emergency scenario. Acting as a medical NGO, the UN, local villagers and a local government, they were tasked with planning a response to an earthquake.  


“Loved the whole thing, well structured presentations, facilitators and organisers. Great team, love all the smiles. Well done and keep up the good work, I will recommend to others.” 


On Day 2, the focus shifted to long term, development work. Topics included health system strengthening, teaching and maternal health.  Guest lectures this year included Dr Hina Shahid, a portfolio GP with extensive overseas experience, Esmael Mayer, medical student and founding board member of Doctors Worldwide in the US, and Dr Mahibur Rahman, portfolio GP and Medical Director of eMedica.  

 Over the course of the two days, speakers discussed case studies from their own experience. They emphasised that interpreting guidelines and best practice in the field is not as simple as it may appear in a book or at a seminar. Dealing with difficult terrain, language difficulties and security concerns, workers must be prepared to think on their feet and improvise, while aspiring to practise safely, as they would back home. They also discussed the personal benefits of humanitarian work – broadening horizons, meeting new people, collaborating with colleagues overseas and developing humility at seeing the difficult conditions that others have to work and live in. 



With a long lunch break and regular coffee breaks on each day, there was plenty of opportunity for chit chat and networking. As with all gatherings where people come together to learn about a topic they are passionate about, not much time was wasted on small talk. People got to know each other very quickly and easily, discussing career plans, training concerns and apprehensions about overseas work, over a chick pea salad and goats cheese parcels. 

 So why attend a Doctors Worldwide course, when there are plenty of other humanitarian medicine courses on the market? The majority of the talks are given by doctors who have field experience or experience working for a humanitarian agency, so all the talks are infused with personal experience and reflections. As the majority of speakers have also been through, or are currently going through, the UK medical training scheme, speakers and organisers are well placed to advice participants on career and training decisions and the pros and cons of taking time out of training.  

 There is a strong emphasis on values – maintaining a high standard of behaviour and practice, reflecting and learning your own and others’ experience and treating people with dignity and respect. Many of the case examples are used to discuss difficult ethical conflicts and unintended consequences that can arise while doing this type of work.  

 It’s a great chance to meet colleagues and other trainees with an interest in humanitarian work and some participants decide to volunteer abroad with Doctors Worldwide or to volunteer their time in the UK, after attending the course.  

Doctors Worldwide will be running the course again in 2018, so keep an eye on the course page, sign up for the email list and follow us on Facebook, for updates about the Course date and venue. 

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