Doctors across borders

In November, International Alert organised a visit of four doctors from the British Sri Lankan diaspora community to Sri Lanka, to learn about the country’s healthcare challenges.

The trip was part of a wider project involving second generation British Sri Lankans travelling to Sri Lanka to learn about post-war development and reconciliation. Started in January 2011, the project is in partnership with the Royal Commonwealth Society in the UK and One Text Initiative in Sri Lanka. The trip was funded by the British High Commission in Colombo.

In March this year, a group of young professionals from Sri Lankan diaspora communities visited the island and were exposed to a wide range of issues, from resettlement to youth challenges, reintegration of ex-combatants to economic development. The group came away with a host of ideas about how they could support Sri Lanka in its post-war era, in particular using their professional backgrounds and networks to work collaboratively with partners in Sri Lanka.

To help facilitate this process, Alert organised this more focused visit in November, which specifically looked at health issues. Four doctors from the diaspora, of Sinhalese and Tamil heritage, met with university medical faculties, hospitals, civil society, and government representatives from the Ministry of Health and Ministry of External Affairs.

During their eight days in Sri Lanka, the doctors travelled to Galle, Jaffna, Batticaloa and Colombo, gaining a cross-island insight into the healthcare system and the challenges which doctors, health professionals and communities are facing on the ground.

Throughout the week, the doctors were warmly received and quickly found common ground with their colleagues in Sri Lanka. Whereas on previous diaspora community visits professional backgrounds had been peripheral to the discussions, on this occasion the participants were met as equals.

The four doctors had wide-ranging professional interests and specialities, including psychiatry, sexual health, community medicine and the interaction between culture and health. The trip gave the doctors the opportunity to explore these issues in greater depth, with clinical experiences shared from both the Sri Lankan and UK contexts.

Medical education was also a major focus of the meetings, particularly undergraduate education and opportunities for joint research. This was a particularly pertinent point, as Sri Lanka is moving from a low- to middle-income country, with the associated shift from acute medical care to the management of chronic diseases. The growing prevalence of non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, was cited as a challenge in the country, which has no formal referral system and a population that prefers to travel long distances to reach major hospitals rather than be treated at their local primary care facility.

Public health awareness was raised again and again as a critical factor in addressing this issue and others, including stigma surrounding mental health, sex education and the importance of a healthy lifestyle for overall wellbeing.

The doctors returned to the UK invigorated about the possibilities for collaboration and the positive response they had received. Together with other health professionals from Sri Lankan diaspora communities involved in the project, they intend to present their experiences to the wider Sri Lankan diaspora medical community in the UK and build on the opportunities for collaboration developed during the visit.

You can read more about the visit on the websites of the British High Commission and Ceylon Today.