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Not so Different: The Humanitarian Sector and the NHS

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Miri King

Miri King

Miri King is a physiotherapist in the Critical Care and Cardiothoracic Surgery department. Since the outbreak of COVID-19 she has also been volunteering on the front line in the Adult Intensive Care Unit. .

We spoke to Miri King, a recent participant of our course: ‘So You Think You Want to be an Aid Worker?’ As a physiotherapist looking to transfer her skills to the humanitarian sector, Miri is aware of the crossover between the NHS and international aid.

Healthcare is an integral aspect of any humanitarian response, and those with professional skills in the sector are well placed to transition to a humanitarian context. 

I grew up in rural Wiltshire and moved to Nottingham to study physiotherapy. I graduated last year and worked first with in-patient geriatric people, before a recent move to Critical Care and Cardiothoracic Surgery, but it’s always been a long-term goal of mine to work in a humanitarian role. When I stumbled across  RedR UK’s introductory workshop I thought “Great, a course that will get me started on the road to rehabilitation in a humanitarian setting!”  

Although the course was online, our cohort was filled with like-minded people of different nationalities, professions, and ages. There was a mix of engineers, journalists, healthcare professionals and recruiters to name a few. It opened my eyes not only to the world of humanitarian aid, but also the multi-faceted, ever-evolving, multi-disciplinary aspects of it. The day was set out over several hours, with interactive sessions discussing case studies, simulations, and the history of humanitarianism. I feel I’m now beginning to understand what constitutes an effective humanitarian response – and it goes far beyond just physiotherapy or healthcare for that matter. 

 I left the course excited about a future in the sector, and enlightened about how a team of different disciplines interacts to achieve a common goal, not dissimilar to our NHS multi-disciplinary teams (MDTs). Anyone who has ever worked in the NHS will know that effective teamwork takes characteristics like organisation and a coordinated response towards a common goal, to name a few.  

The Cluster Approach, developed in response to disasters such as the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, is similarly built on cooperation and planning. It aims to make humanitarian response more predictable by introducing a system for organising sectoral coordination among humanitarian actors.  It’s this Cluster Approach that, on reflection, really opened my eyes to its similarities with NHS work; a ward is staffed by an MDT from doctors and nurses to physios and occupational therapists, and every day, the MDT co-ordinates an effective response to each patient on the ward. 

“There are more similarities than are immediately obvious.” 

The RedR course and learning about the Cluster Approach has made me more conscious of the characteristics of an effective team and its response to an event. As a result, I explicitly try to execute them every day while working within the MDT. This means communicating my clinical decisions with key members; delegating or taking on more tasks to help the team and ensure the response is co-ordinated. 

Yes, the NHS is not located in a war zone, and it is supported by a stable country and its government, but the two sectors share a lot too: limited funding and resources; vulnerable people; political fallout; the importance of teamwork; a massive breadth of injury/illness; - there are more similarities than are immediately obvious. 

Lessons from the Aid Sector and the NHS 

Before the RedR UK course, I had little idea of what makes an effective humanitarian response – could this be the same as the NHS response to COVID-19? 

As an easily transmissible and fatal respiratory illness, COVID-19 demanded urgent action – not too dissimilar to that of a natural disaster or war zone. I am incredibly proud of the NHS, and twelve months into the pandemic, the NHS is now more proactive than it’s ever been, with the response now more coordinated. However, while we can’t dictate funding and resource provision, keeping those who can well-informed, or voicing our concerns as a team, is incredibly important.  

Just as crises such as the 2004 Tsunami have developed the Cluster Approach, will the COVID-19 pandemic lead to the development of an effective pandemic plan? Let’s hope so.  

Towards the Future 

The NHS and the humanitarian sector are underpinned by the common goal of helping those in need, whether the result of conflict, disaster, or pandemic. The urgency of COVID-19 and the response that was required saw the NHS stretched to its limits and highlighted the stark similarities with a humanitarian emergency response. 

Yet, the value of both sectors goes beyond solely practical expertise. Neither sector exists in a vacuum and both rely on the coordinated response of a diverse group of people from every part of society. The two sectors can learn a lot from one another, and whether through training with RedR or larger, sector-wide initiatives, closer cooperation should be championed.