An NGO run by nurses and health professionals for nurses and health professionals
joão marçal grilo
Geography and nursing are two fields you don’t often see interacting, but for João Marçal-Grilo they go hand in hand. As the founding director of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Unity in Health, he provides opportunities for Western-trained nurses to share their skills with communities in the developing world – specifically Sri Lanka and Nepal.
He calls it a “platform for an exchange of knowledge and skills” and hopes nurses can come back from their volunteer experiences with new perspectives to share with the NHS and the UK healthcare system.
Mr Marçal-Grilo had no intention of becoming a nurse when he was young – he initially studied geography with third-world development studies. But after volunteering at a hospital in Sri Lanka, that all changed. He gained a nursing degree from King’s College London and became a registered mental health nurse, working in various community organisations.
His new career didn’t overshadow his previous studies though.
“About six years ago, I thought I’d like to somehow combine the experience I had in nursing and what I’d done before,” he explains.
“I specialised in dementia care, in adult and older adult mental health, and I was able to combine nursing and my studies around third world development.”
He travelled back to Sri Lanka and helped the Lanka Alzheimer’s Foundation open an activity centre for people with dementia and their carers, training staff on basic assessment and treatment skills.
“For the first time, I was able to join those different experiences,” Mr Marçal-Grilo says. “I specialised in dementia care, in adult and older adult mental health, and I was able to combine nursing and my studies around third world development.”
Mr Marçal-Grilo had the idea to start his own NGO in 2014, and by October of that year Unity in Health was born. It supports the education and training of nurses and allied health professionals in other countries, and he calls it “an NGO run by nurses and health professionals for nurses and health professionals”.
Part of Mr Marçal-Grilo’s reason for developing Unity in Health was that he realised there was a gap to be filled. Many NGOs are emergency relief organisations or focused entirely on the medical profession, and few support nurses in the medium to long term – specifically with education and professional development.
“You make new friendships and it’s extraordinary to be able to build those relationships with people who can be so different culturally from you, because you have a bond thanks to your passion for nursing”
And so he decided to fix that by encouraging nurses from the UK to get involved. “Western nurses have amazing skills and can play a huge role in reducing inequality in the world,” he says.
While he acknowledges challenges to nursing in a different country with a different culture, Mr Marçal-Grilo believes meeting people from those cultures outweighs any negatives.
“You make new friendships and it’s extraordinary to be able to build those relationships with people who can be so different culturally from you, because you have a bond thanks to your passion for nursing,” he says.
And many of the nurses in these countries are working in incredibly difficult conditions, which can provide some much needed perspective.
“In Nepal after the earthquake, nurses worked without electricity, in buildings that could collapse at any moment,” says Mr Marçal-Grilo.
The working conditions aren’t the only issue. There is a big shortage of nurses in the developing world, especially specialist ones. Of the 20 million people in Sri Lanka, only about 45 are trained community mental health nurses, according to Mr Marçal-Grilo.
“In Nepal after the earthquake, nurses worked without electricity, in buildings that could collapse at any moment”
“The nurses who have been trained have huge caseloads and few resources. The country has huge mental health problems due to the civil war there, and the majority of the population has no access to mental health resources,” he explains.
So Mr Marçal-Grilo has been working to make a difference, and though it’s slow going, he believes in the power of what he’s doing.
“Change happens at a slow pace, but unless you start something, unless you believe this change can happen, you won’t get anywhere”.
If you’d like to get involved with Unity in Health, visit www.unityinhealth.org.