How medical advancements in rural settings are possible through volunteers

When Dr Mary-Anne Hartley arrived at Tintswalo Hospital, a 423-bed public hospital located in Acornhoek, as a volunteer with the Tshemba Foundation, the organisers of Dr Hartley’s visit, Tshemba’s medical director Professor John Gear and volunteer coordinator Rhian Twine, had no idea just how much value she would add to the local community.

All volunteers that give up their time to support district hospitals and clinics by sharing their expertise and skills add value, but sometimes there are unforeseen and additional benefits as well.

For example, Dr Hartley is a medical scientist and researcher focusing on ultrasonography. By immersing herself in Tintswalo’s realties, she was able to recognise the need for a portable ultrasound tool using artificial intelligence that can be used by any doctor at a district health level to support women during their pregnancies.

“Dr Hartley has found solutions that suit rural district care, delivering training around how to use the portable ultrasound to make diagnoses as well,” says Professor Gear.

“This is why volunteers are so powerful. By their nature, doctors, nurses and specialists who volunteer at rural district hospitals are passionate, innovative people. Dr Hartley is a perfect example. She arrived with passion and enthusiasm and a commitment to share the evolving benefits of high-tech interventions in low-tech settings,” said professor Gear.

It’s what the Tshemba Foundation is built on: an understanding and strong conviction that volunteers bring new perspectives to district healthcare. To attract volunteers, the foundation has built a lodge near the hospital and bordering the Kruger National Park, ensuring that volunteers can enjoy a ‘leave of purpose,’ doing good while also enjoying the magnificence of a private lodge in the Lowveld’s pristine bush.

“Whether they are based in the hospital or one of the clinics, volunteers are a catalyst for improvement and change. They inspire the full-time nurses and doctors who they work with, and because they are looking for ways to add value with fresh eyes, they usually find a new way of looking at an old problem,” says Twine.

“The reality is that rural hospitals are far away from towns, schools and other amenities, which means they are often under-staffed. There has also been chronic under-resourcing in this sector for decades. Rural areas have been systemically neglected, and volunteers are an important way to bridge some of these gaps and to support the local doctors and nurses,” Twine added.

Professor Gear likens volunteers to bees, arriving to fertilise plants. “Specialists, doctors and nurses who are based in cities tend to be plugged into a large network of teaching hospitals, some residency work, their own practices and associations. There’s a natural inclination towards innovation, growth and sharing of ideas that is much harder to achieve when you are more isolated in rural areas.

“Volunteers are the pollinators of ideas and innovations in rural areas, however,” says Professor Gear. “The goal is not for volunteers to take over or run a district hospital or clinics, but to support existing staff and add value to their lives and the lives of their patients, which is something every health professional can do, particularly when they are also able to offer training, educational opportunities and different perspectives.

“By nature, volunteers are amazing people who are prepared to sacrifice their own time to add value. Their enthusiasm gives the resident doctors and nurses renewed energy as well. We’ve seen first-hand how morale lifts thanks to the fresh eyes, perspectives and passion that volunteers bring to Tinstwalo.”

Book your #LeaveOfPurpose today

While the Tshemba Foundation’s volunteer programme is best suited for longer stays, there are short-term opportunities available that can accommodate busy schedules while still maximising the impact of volunteering at Tintswalo and the local clinics in the area.

To find out more, visit https://www.tshembafoundation.org/our-volunteer-programme

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