UK-Med and the NHS: A Symbiotic Relationship

UK-Med was born of the NHS. The relationship shared by the two organisations continues to be one of the charity’s main arteries.

UK-Med’s first iteration was as the South Manchester Accident Response Team (SMART). As Tony Redmond recalls in his autobiography,


“A child had been impaled on railings that had penetrated the back of his head, and in spite of his proximity to several hospitals there was no-one with the right skills free to remove him from his gibbet… The affair prompted the Chair of the local Health Authority to phone me… describing the problem and telling me to find a solution. The answer, to my mind, lay in recruiting a team of senior, experienced nurses and doctors to volunteer in their off-duty time, and be available, 24 hours a day, in support of the emergency services.”

Tony and his new recruits to SMART raised enough money to equip and support themselves, and contributions from supportive members of the local community got them an ambulance, state of the art communications equipment, and fire and chemical-proof clothing for each member.

“And so, the concept behind much of my future work was born: (1) recruit highly skilled volunteers; (2) raise money to train and equip them to work in a difficult environment; (3) place them on a register that guarantees a team is available to deploy, wherever and whenever, it is required.”

In 1988, Tony led a team of eight Manchester clinicians to Armenia, when a huge earthquake ripped through the north of the country; killing 60,000 people and destroying nearly half a million buildings. This was the charity’s very first international response, and paved the way for our future responses.

The team expanded outside of Manchester and as it became national the name changed to UK-Med, enabling expert medical support to be deployed to humanitarian emergencies around the world.

Today, the UK-Med Register holds nearly 1,000 names, nearly half of whom still have day jobs in the NHS. The list of professionals includes senior nurses, physicians, surgeons, physiotherapists and GPs. And, as Tony prioritised right from the start, every day, “they’re treating patients and maintaining and honing their skills.”

In 2021, UK-Med published a report looking at the three-fold benefits that NHS staff deploying to work on emergency medical responses bring to the disaster affected communities, the NHS, and the clinicians themselves.

In the report, 83-98% of the survey’s participants reported having experienced improvements in their clinical skills, wellbeing, resilience and their ability to deliver quality improvements for patients.

There Is No Health Without Global Health

Stephen Owens is a Consultant Paediatrician in Infectious Diseases and Immunology. He’s worked as a health professional for 23 years, latterly at the Great North Children’s Hospital in Newcastle.

“We live in a globalised world, and our approach to medicine needs to reflect this,” he says. “Someone walking into the Emergency Department today could have been anywhere in the world in the previous 48 hours. Which means that infections and diseases you read about in textbooks, and dismiss as students, actually could be on your doorstep.”

He believes that being the man in the hazmat suit, rather than simply having attended a lecture also helps considerably when now lecturing himself. “Twenty years ago, as a student I had one talk on Ebola. Working with UK-Med I’ve seen infections that I’d never or rarely seen before, which means I can now teach about them with some authority.”

His work experience abroad also helped prepare him to tackle Covid-19. “Working on the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone meant I knew what it was like to work with patients in PPE, how to manage anxieties among staff, and manage isolation safely.”

And his UK-Med work also has wider benefits, for instance, giving him a greater sense of resilience. “To be picked up and dropped on the other side of the world with a team of doctors you’ve never worked with before, and to then see that team click into place overnight and get to work saving lives is really wonderful.”

``It also gives you a real idea of how amazing the NHS is – and that’s really important when you’re under pressure in the day job – as we often are.``

Rowena Williams, an ICU nurse who works in a Sheffield teaching hospital, was also in Sierra Leone, then went to Lebanon to train critical care nurses in the management of Covid-19 patients. “Before deploying to Lebanon I was able to offer to get involved in PPE training in my NHS unit, because of the work I’d done with Ebola and infectious diseases.

“Working abroad with UK-Med has been quite a humbling experience, exposing me to people who have a completely different life from the one I’ve been lucky enough to have. It makes you realise the tools we’ve got in the NHS are so rich, and, even though the NHS is going through a hard time, all the opportunities we have.”

A Surgeon’s Calling

Since the start of the war in the Ukraine, there has been a regular flow of information between Ukrainian and UK NHS surgeons. Shehan Hettiarchy, a consultant plastic and reconstruction surgeon who works at the Imperial College Healthcare Trust in London was one of the first to go out, and has since visited Ukraine three times.

“Prior to the war, the country had an extremely efficient health service – which continues to adapt and perform really well. But any nation would struggle under the burden imposed by war, and Ukraine’s doctors had little training in the injuries caused by conflict trauma, which is what we were specifically sent in to provide.”

However, 18 months on the UK surgeons are also learning from those in Ukraine – who are now the ones with the immediate frontline experience. “Thanks to the power of a WhatsApp group, at least 80 surgeons regularly swap tips and information, analyse x-rays, even carry out operations while using this basic but effective form of communication. It’s been extraordinary to see the extent to which the Ukrainian teams have taken what we were able to teach them and expand it to so much more.”

Surgeons in the UK and Ukraine are finding innovative ways to share learning and expertise.

How Can the NHS Afford the Absences?

A common question that UK-Med is asked is, why are you taking NHS workers away when the NHS is also struggling?

David Anderson, UK-Med’s Consultant and Emergency Department nurse, with 32 years’ experience working in the NHS, latterly as a Divisional Director, has an answer. “Particularly in the winter, we know that UK hospitals are under an immense amount of pressure. But there are still massive benefits to be gained from releasing people out of the system; enabling them to return rejuvenated, refreshed, and with a new perspective.

“Fundamentally, working with people with different skillsets allows you to develop your own skills, think differently and, to use the great British phrase, slightly outside the box. Because within the NHS we can get stuck sometimes on a rather linear path, which can also be demotivating.”

Tony Redmond says that NHS managers understand the benefits from having their clinicians deploy and have always been wonderfully supportive, spending time altering shifts etc to accommodate the three or four-week absences.

``The shared emotional uplift from coming together in a common cause is powerful and binds we humans together, and I have never had difficulty in recruiting volunteers.``

People have always, he reflects, “stepped up, come out of retirement, changed jobs, moved cities, [changed rotas], all to help those most in need.”

Which is great to hear. Because climate change is everything change. And we live in a world that is already seeing a significant increase in medical emergencies, caused by events including hurricanes, flooding, and extreme heat; not to mention the problems that will come from future mass migration – including increased disease*.

Which is why now, more than ever, our approach to health, in order for it to remain fit for purpose in a rapidly changing world, means we need to have a far-reaching vision (and levels of expertise), operating on a global scale. Because these days, ‘national’ is no longer enough.

How Climate Change Exacerbates Disease Outbreak

As once cooler areas become hotter, insects that carry disease in warmer climates can move to other areas. For example, mosquitoes carrying malaria. Climate change causes flooding, and mosquitoes breed in pooled stagnant water. Climate change also causes drought in some areas, destroying crops and livestock. Meaning that those in poorer countries have no alternative but to move. Often they move into already overcrowded, poorly serviced, urban areas. This rapid/unplanned urbanisation means people live cheek by jowl in unsanitary conditions facilitating the spread of diseases such as cholera.

Working with UK-Med

If you have the determination to make a difference, and would like to work with UK-Med, visit our vacancies page or follow us on LinkedIn.

UK-Med staff fall into three main categories: core staffcountry programme staff, and register members. Core staff are full-time employees of UK-Med and ensure the continuing function of our operations overseas and at headquarters. Country programme staff are part of our more established and longer-term humanitarian responses, such as our current Ukraine mission. Register members are recruited to support surge and emergency response requirements, volunteering to be on call for certain times of the year. They deploy for short periods at a time (usually between 4-12 weeks).

UK-Med doesn’t only recruit clinicians. We draw on a wide range of specialisms to support our mission, including logistics, operations, human resources, communications, and finance.

We are continuing to strengthen our register of trained humanitarian and health professionals to enable us to respond to emergencies around the globe, and we will be running a campaign for UK based health roles at the end of 2023 and into early 2024. Keep checking our website and LinkedIn page for more details which will be shared soon.