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10 things I learned from volunteering as a nurse abroad

 David Atherton 5 May 2017

David Atherton spent almost two years volunteering with VSO at a rural nursing college in Malawi. He shares the highlights from his time there.

  1. Nurses have a lot to offer: I used my skills to improve nurse education in another country. Fundamental skills are the same wherever you practice and providing nurses with a strong education allows them to flourish. 
  2. There is always more to learn: I developed my skills, understanding and practice as a nurse in a globalised world. Context is key and I learnt so much about how to adapt nursing skills to a low-resource setting.
  3. Network: I worked with nursing staff of all ages, experience and backgrounds. The only thing we had in common was the energy and enthusiasm needed to volunteer our time
  4. Learn from others: At first, I found the whole experience overwhelming: there are lots of people in need, and trying to prioritise according to my practice from the UK was not going to work. So, although I wanted to jump straight in, I realised that I initially had to take a step back and approach my case load in a different way.
  5. You don’t need as much as you think: I treated tropical diseases with limited diagnostic tools and drugs. I even spent time helping in the hospital garden which provides patients with plant-based therapies for a whole host of ailments.
  6. Don’t forget the basics: I learnt the importance of rest and a good diet in the healing process – something that is often overlooked in our medicalised society. Treatment with drugs is not always effective. Treating people as humans will always improve outcomes.
  7. Volunteering was easier than I thought: You can maintain your NMC registration while working abroad, in fact, many NHS trusts have a variety of career break options. Your employer may be able to support you to take time out to volunteer.
  8. Bring your learning back with you: When I returned to the UK, I ran a training course for nurses deploying to Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak. It was great to see a whole new set of people fired up and ready to deploy in Africa.
  9. Help is available: There are a wide range of agencies who will prepare you leave the UK. Many of the staff who I trained before they went to Sierra Leone had joined the UK International Emergency Medical Register, and it was great to see the difference they made in a humanitarian role.
  10. A sense of potential: To volunteer abroad you don’t need to be Bear Grylls or have a Master’s in Public Health. I surprised myself by what I was capable of. I did it – and you could too.


David Atherton

David Atherton

VSO International

International Nurse Adviser


Interested? Join our webinar

The RCN will be holding a joint webinar later in the summer with the RCM, MSF and VSO for nurses and midwives with an interest in working overseas – please keep an eye on our social media for further details. The RCN also has a closed Facebook group for members with an interest/experience in working overseas in global health: www.facebook.com/groups/RCNInternationalNursingNetwork.