This blog will capture the many diverse roles played by employees and volunteers across the Virtual Doctors. I’m a final year university student in the UK and am planning a career in journalism. As such, I’m interested in writing about global affairs and am drawn to the work done by the Virtual Doctors. Here is the second instalment in a series of blogs about the organisation and its staff.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Simon Gazeley, who became involved with the charity as a volunteer doctor a few years ago after reading an article about the Virtual Doctors’ work in the British Medical Journal. He is now also volunteering as the charities Medical Director. A key part of his role is assessing the suitability of and signing up new volunteer doctors. He also provides medical advice to the trustees and admin team and responds to or forwards on any cases in which a volunteer doctor requires more assistance. He manages all this alongside his responsibility as a volunteer doctor, usually dealing with dermatology and GP-type cases, and his day job - working at a UK GP practice.
Simon had been considering doing charity work but was struggling to find something that would fit in well with his professional commitments. When he discovered the “inspiring project” that the Virtual Doctors runs he was very keen to get involved, particularly as he had spent some time working in Malawi a few years earlier and so had relevant skills and experience.
Working as a volunteer doctor is incredibly varied and stands in stark contrast to general practice in this country. Simon has dealt with some challenging cases and often sees people with illnesses that are very advanced given the large distances they must cover to reach the clinics. He recently gave a clinical officer advice on treating her child who had severe burns across his body. His mother had left him at home when she went to get water and came back to find the house on fire. Given the severity of his injuries it is unlikely that the child survived. This case was particularly hard-hitting, but it provides an insight into the kind of challenges Zambian communities face and highlights the contribution the Virtual Doctors can make.
Despite the distressing cases, Simon maintains that, “being able to offer advice and support to the clinical officers so that they can provide better healthcare to their communities is very rewarding”. The most positive element of the work is once he has given advice to a clinical officer and then receives a response that the patient’s condition has improved. “It doesn’t always happen, but when it does it’s a great feeling knowing that you’ve personally helped that patient”. Although the clinical officers can’t always give feedback, for Simon it makes a big difference when they do. After sitting in his UK surgery telling fifteen people in a row that they have a cold it gives him a real boost and he says, “it’s great to be able to feel first-hand the positive effect of the work that he is doing with the charity.”
Simon is in regular contact with the medical team in Zambia and so is able to see that the Virtual Doctors service has been embraced by the Zambian community, as their feedback is consistently very positive. For Clinical Officers in Zambia, the charity’s work offers reassurance that there is always someone they can ask for advice, and they can see that the patients are benefitting and the Virtual Doctors service is helping them to improve the standard of healthcare in the country.
When asked about where he sees the Virtual Doctors going in the future, he said that the ultimate goal is to reach a point where all the clinics have the required technology and the local Zambian doctors have the knowledge and training to provide the clinical officers with the help and support that they need. The Virtual Doctors can then extend their service to another country in Africa and begin the process again. This makes the work more sustainable and means the resources of the charity are maximised and used to their full potential. An insight into Simon’s role with the Virtual Doctors serves to demonstrate just how worthwhile the charity’s work is and the difference it is making to the lives of Zambian communities.
And finally, if all of this isn’t enough, I understand that Simon and his wife Louise (who is also a volunteer Dr for the charity), took part in the Royal Parks Half Marathon last year and raised over £810 in sponsorship for the cause. Amazing all round support!