Dr Louise Gazeley studied medicine at Newcastle and trained as a GP in Yorkshire. She is now a partner at Moorside Surgery in Bradford where she teaches 3rd and 4th year medical students, as well as acting as a personal tutor within the medical school. In her spare time, she volunteers with Virtual Doctors.
Can you tell us about Virtual Doctors?
In Africa, many places don’t have doctors, only clinical officers with very rudimentary medical training. Virtual Doctors is a charity that gives those clinical officers access to a smartphone. When they have puzzling cases, they can then upload the details and any photographs. The case is then allocated to an appropriate doctor in the UK who provides feedback and education on how to approach similar cases in the future. The charity started in Zambia and has spread into Malawi, having already set up six clinics.
How did you first get involved?
I saw an article in the BMJ so emailed the contact. Now my husband works for them as the volunteer medical director. My best friend from university and several of my friends from round here work for them too. It’s growing rapidly!
Have you visited areas where the charity is active?
I first visited Malawi during my elective. I then returned in 2012 when my husband and I spent three months on a sabbatical, working in a similar clinic there. The healthcare challenges are very different to what we’re used to in the UK. The staff receive less training. There’s no NHS so the patients have to pay. Most importantly, supplies are difficult to access so there’s a limited formulary for clinicians. When we were working there, a fuel shortage meant the clinic couldn’t get new provisions whatever their availability and we ended up running out of malaria testing kits. Everyone had to have a blood screen sent to the lab — the technician had to examine hundreds of slides per day. The patients don’t have it easy either. It wouldn’t be unheard of for them to walk for a couple of days to reach the clinic.
How have your experiences affected the advice you give via Virtual Doctors?
It’s crucial. You have to think with your ‘African medicine head’ on rather than your ‘Western head’. You have to be aware of the clinic’s limitations. For example, as advisors, we’re all given a list of the medicines each clinic should have. So our advice is very different to what you’d give in the UK.
I tend to see the GP-style queries, but if I don’t know what to do, I send it back to the charity and they allocate it to one of the UK specialists. For example, there’s been a case recently of a child with horrendous burns that really didn’t look compatible with life and their clinician received advice from a plastic surgeon in the UK. The child survived.
I think you do change lives much more readily than in the UK, or at least on the face of it. It’s often very simple advice that you give, really because the clinical officers are working well beyond their remit. They’re the only healthcare providers for massive geographical areas.
How can an interested doctor get involved?
They’re always looking out for new volunteers. You can find more information on the website. The charity is especially in need of ophthalmologists, ENT (ear, nose, throat) surgeons, and general surgeons. Telemedicine is increasingly being used in international health and other charities now use the same platforms. I’d recommend it; I think it’s fascinating what comes through, and I like imagining how the medical officers are caring for patients in real time. It’s amazing being able to change lives from the other side of the world.
Interview by David Maskill, Year 5, MBChB