Deciding to work abroad, whether for a short or longer period, is a big decision. However, it is also a major opportunity – and for nurses it is far easier than for most professionals.
Healthcare is universal, and their training means nurses from the UK are in demand in a huge range of countries and specialties. And with the short-term uncertainty in many areas resulting from finances and reconfiguration in the NHS, this may be a good time for many nurses to think about a period working overseas.
While English speaking developed countries are popular destinations, nurses can also contribute to improving health systems in developing countries. Various charities offer these opportunities, including Voluntary Services Overseas.
Michelle Potter went to Outer Mongolia for two years with VSO – thanks to being a fan of 1970s pop idol David Essex.
‘I had always wanted to nurse in a developing country, and my daughter had just finished university, so I thought the time was right,’ she explains. ‘David was an ambassador for Voluntary Services Overseas and I saw a news story about him in Africa. I’m his biggest fan, so I though: “If it’s good enough for him”.’
After going through VSO’s selection and assessment procedures Ms Potter was given a choice of postings. She opted to teach nurses in Mongolia about sexually transmitted diseases.
As an ophthalmic nurse Ms Potter first needed to develop her own knowledge of STDs, which she did through unpaid shifts at a UK clinic. She then went out to Choibalsan, a small city close to Mongolia’s border with China.
Initially she taught nurses fundamental principles such as confidentiality, privacy and dignity, and the importance of continuing professional education. Ms Potter also designed and taught a curriculum on STDs and another on ophthalmics, as well as teaching professional English and computer skills to doctors.
Although she was based in Choibalsan, Ms Potter taught at hospitals over a huge area. Mongolia is around the same size as Western Europe, but has a population of only 2.5 million. This means healthcare facilities elsewhere are spread widely – one of her hospitals was a nine-hour drive from Choibalsan.
Ms Potter worked with an interpreter who had excellent English but no healthcare knowledge. ‘When I arrived she thought all diseases were caused by worms of differing sizes, so we had a lot of work to do to teach her the language she needed,’ says Ms Potter.
Ms Potter’s social life included regular nights out with the other few foreigners in Choibalsan – in all there were about a dozen working with either VSO or the US Peace Corps. However, she also socialised with her Mongolian colleagues, holding many dinner parties in her comfortable apartment in the city.
Ms Potter earned a local salary while in Mongolia, with an additional top-up from VSO . Since the hospital also provided her accommodation, she had plenty of money to spend and says she lived like a queen.
She is full of praise for VSO, who gave her a helpful introduction to Mongolian culture and language when she arrived, and were always available for telephone or email advice and support.
The charity takes qualified professionals aged 25–75, most of whom do two-year assignments. It works in 30 countries, enabling professionals to pass on their skills to local communities. It also offers short-term specialist assignments for highly qualified professionals, which can range from two weeks to six months.
Now back in the UK, Ms Potter says the experience has changed her. ‘I’ve realised that I’m highly adaptable and can cope with pretty much anything,’ she says. ‘Nothing seems to faze me.
‘I’ve also realised it’s just geographical luck that I have a comfortable life. If I’d been born elsewhere I could be living in poverty too.’
Having enjoyed her time in Mongolia, Ms Potter is keen to experience another culture, although she is undecided where to go. But wherever she chooses, it will be with VSO again. ‘I’d highly recommend going with them – they were fabulous.’
English-speaking developed countries, for example
• New Zealand
• North America
Middle Eastern countries
Developing countries, often through charities such as
Médecins sans Frontières