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Specialist training for nurses will boost UK health authorities’ support for resource-poor facilities

Caption: Claire Bertschinger feeding Ethiopian child. Credit: Claire Bertschinger

Between 80-90% of healthcare worldwide is delivered by nurses and midwives. Doctors and surgeons give & prescribe groundbreaking treatment, but without the care and follow through of the nurses those patients will not survive. Nurses are one of the most important factors for global health and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, so it’s imperative they have the skills to work effectively wherever they are in the world.

Many UK hospitals now ‘twin up’ to support and train medical staff in lower middle-income countries (LMICs). These partnerships mean that The Diploma in Tropical Nursing (DTN) at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine is more popular than ever.

DTN has come a long way since its origins as a course of lectures at the old Hospital for Tropical Diseases in St Pancras Hospital, back in the 1960’s. When the course first began, I fought many battles. Professors were shocked for allowing ‘nurses’ into their academic citadel. I was once told that they didn’t see the point of lecturing to nurses, as supposedly they didn’t understand and were not interested in their subject. 

Despite this I really wanted that to happen, and encouraged them to tweak the lecture so that it empowered the nurses rather than spoke down to them. Since the course formally began in 1998,  I am pleased to say it is now a world-leading world postgraduate university based course that welcomes 130 students every year.

'The contents of the course have developed to combine well renowned lecturers who are specialists in their own field, with crucial on the ground experience' - Claire Bertschinger

Recommended by MSF, Save the Children, Voluntary Services Overseas and the Red Cross, the contents of the course have developed to combine well renowned lecturers who are specialists in their own field, with crucial on the ground experience.

Unfortunately I regularly meet nurses who after being twinned with their UK hospital or through a charity, have worked in African or Asian hospitals without first undergoing specialist training. Although they may be at the top of their profession in the UK, working in different countries and climates requires additional knowledge to cope with new challenges such as treating tropical diseases, lack of water, electricity, sanitation and working in different cultures.

Health authorities should be praised for committing themselves to supporting resource poor health facilities in Africa or Asia, and I encourage all of them to allow their staff additional training in tropical healthcare. In the long run this will be economically productive, bring healthcare benefits and enable nurses to work in resource poor situations and act as capacity builders for the future - helping others to help themselves is at the heart of what the course teaches.

Caption: September 2017 Diploma of Tropical Nursing students in front of LSHTM. Credit: LSHTM
Caption: September 2017 Diploma of Tropical Nursing students in front of LSHTM. Credit: LSHTM

In 1984 whilst in Ethiopia working for the Red Cross, I was covered in flies, bitten by fleas with no running water, no electricity.  When the BBC arrived with their film crew, who would have thought that my cry for help would not only be heard but also acted upon.  I didn’t.  I know that  ‘a great human revolution in just a single individual will help achieve a change in the destiny of a nation and, further, will enable a change in the destiny of all humankind’.

I am proud to say that DTN graduates often go on to do great things, working with major health organisations and becoming leaders in their field. May that continue for the next 20 years and beyond.