Advice for healthcare professionals moved to offer help to refugees at the ‘Jungle’ in Calais or elsewhere.

The piteous sight of distressed refugee families in camps across the world has moved many healthcare professionals to offer their assistance.

Doctors and nurses have unique skills to offer to those in need of medical attention, as well as access to resources that would be invaluable in refugee camps. Many of those considering offering their services have posted queries and suggestions on forums and social media, some of which we answer here.

Date-expired drugs

One apparently reasonable query is whether it would be appropriate to donate drugs which are past their expiry date. After all, why destroy valuable drugs when they could potentially help save lives in refugee camps? While this suggestion appears to be a pragmatic way to avoid waste and help those in need, it is not something that would be encouraged.

If the quality of the item is unacceptable in the donor country, it is also unacceptable as a donation.

The World Health Organization (WHO) addressed this issue in its 2011 publication Guidelines for medicine donations. One of the core principles set out in this document is the need to avoid double standards in quality, so 'if the quality of the item is unacceptable in the donor country, it is also unacceptable as a donation'.

While the WHO guidance is not intended to be an international regulatory framework it does highlight the need for best donation practice and the reasons for this, many of which apply even when medications are still in date.

If expired drugs were to be sent to a refugee camp, they may end up being destroyed anyway, often at the cost of the government of the recipient country, which would add further to their financial burden. There are also possible repercussions connected to the transport, storage, distribution and safety management of donated drugs, whether in date or not.

While the wish to make donations undoubtedly arises from the very best intentions, it is important to appreciate that not everything is useful for those in developing countries or refugee camps.

Photo credit: Alamy

Volunteering your skills

Another common query regards doctors wishing to offer their medical expertise on a voluntary basis in refugee camps.

There are numerous organisations that offer doctors the opportunity to volunteer abroad, and they are usually best able to assist or advise on the practical arrangements that are necessary.

Aspects of volunteering to consider are:

  • do you need to be registered with the medical regulatory body of the country you plan to work in?
  • how can you ensure you are appropriately indemnified?
  • do your skills and knowledge meet the requirements of the group of people you wish to assist?

While some doctors may consider just turning up at a refugee camp to see what help they can offer, it is always advisable to arrange voluntary work via a recognised organisation that can support doctors appropriately and has an established infrastructure for note-keeping, medicines management, consent, translation services and so on.

One such organisation is London-based Doctors of the World. Claire Lubert , programme coordinator, told the MDU Journal, 'It's important for volunteers to check before setting out what indemnity and registration requirements you need to put in place. Those volunteering with Doctors of the World to work in the 'Jungle' in Calais, for example, will be covered by our indemnity arrangement with the French chapter of our organisation. Registration and licence to practice can be more complicated depending on where people go. The doctors that we send to Greece, for instance, need to work at all times under the supervision of a registered Greek doctor.'

She stresses that requirements may be different in other countries, and even for those going to France who wish to work for extended periods or move to a salaried role. For any destination, it is therefore essential to check these details beforehand.

Doctors of the World can be contacted on 020 7167 5789

This page was correct at publication on 01/12/2015. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.