Short volunteer stints have big impact

Celia performing physiotherapy on local Cambodian child

Singapore foundation reports multiplier effect; it has sent abroad over 2,000 skilled volunteers

Short stints of volunteer work can go a long way.

The Singapore International Foundation (SIF) is convinced of this, after almost 20 years of sending skilled volunteers off to help in developing countries.

It has sent specialist teams to share skills and expertise and help those they train become trainers themselves for a "cascade effect".

"Singapore has innovated this model of short stints of volunteer work for busy professionals, and we were astounded at the multiplier effect the projects had," said SIF director of international volunteerism Margaret Thevarakom.

"Locals were no longer just receiving aid, they became our partners and the change-makers themselves." 

So far, the SIF has sent more than 2,000 such volunteers to help in 17 developing countries, primarily in Asia, with much success.

In Cambodia's National Paediatric Hospital, for example, death rates within the first 24 hours of hospitalisation fell from 57 per cent in 2004, to 30 per cent in 2006, after it joined hands with the SIF on a project to beef up the skills of doctors and nurses at its emergency department. 

Professor Chhour Y Meng, Cambodia's Undersecretary of State for Health and the hospital's former director, said the programme was so successful that the country was looking to expanding it nationwide.

In fact, the hospital did so well that it was selected by the World Health Organisation as the country's paediatrics training centre.

Ms Pang Nguk Lan, deputy director of patient safety at KK Women's and Children's Hospital, was a key member of the team who shared her skills in paediatric emergency care and resuscitation there.

"We showed them how we set up workflow, how to assess a patient, set priorities and do triage, and showed that, even in chaos, there can be order. They were so keen to learn," she recalled.

One nurse treated a six-month- old baby who was in toxic shock and about to die, when there was no doctor available in the emergency room. 

"This nurse we had trained managed to save the baby's life, and the next day when we visited the ward, he was there crying, but alive and kicking," said Ms Pang. 

The catalyst effect, she added, was that not only were locals trained, but they were also equipped to train others long after the volunteers had left.

Similar benefits were felt in 12 projects in Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia, according to an independent study commissioned by the SIF. 

The projects roped in more than 400 health-care professionals, volunteering for one to two weeks at a time, on projects lasting three to five years.

Apart from improving their skills, trainees also noted that they had better empathy and communication skills, systems were put in place so work ran more efficiently, and patients received better care. They in turn received recognition for their efforts.

In some cases, policies were changed.

Following a palliative care project in Vietnam, for example, volunteers' suggestions to revise restrictive legislation on morphine for terminally ill patients - which is critical in managing pain - were taken up by the government, and laws were changed to allow production of enough morphine for them.

The SIF also partnered the Caritas Centre for Child and Adolescent Mental Health in Cambodia for the country's first speech therapy training.

Over five years, Singapore speech therapy professionals trained 48 locals in treating and caring for children with feeding and communication problems. These trainees can now work with 2,800 children.

Associate professor Celia Tan, group director of Group Allied Health at SingHealth, has led physical rehabilitation training projects in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

Her work led to a professional education framework for physiotherapists in Cambodia, and basic-level physiotherapy programmes in Laos.

"Before the training, they just did massage for patients because that was all they knew. But now they can assess what's wrong, where there's pain, and talk to other health-care team members such as a rehabilitation doctor to discuss how to get them walking again," she said.

The next step will be to bring in doctors and nurses, and train an inter-disciplinary team on rehabilitation, as well as helping the physiotherapy schools to get international accreditation.

"Our aim is to put them on the right road, see them take off, and make ourselves redundant," she said.

Sometimes it took time to win local partners over, and although individual trips lasted only weeks, projects were followed for years until they took off.

Said Ms Pang: "In some cases, people were sceptical at first but they usually changed their minds. One doctor who challenged everything we said in the beginning became our biggest advocate."

Volunteers have found the stints very rewarding.

"We gain more than we give," said Ms Pang.

Those who would like to volunteer with the Singapore International Foundation can visit www.sif. org.sg for details and available opportunities.


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