The piteous sight of distressed refugee families in camps across the world has moved many healthcare professionals to consider volunteering abroad in Calais, Greece and further afield.But the Medical Defence Union (MDU) is warning doctors to make sure they check out the practicalities first, like whether they are indemnified and registered to work abroad and have the correct skills needed. It's also inadvisable to donate expired drugs.
 
Writing in the latest edition of the MDU Journal, Dr Ellie Mein, MDU medico-legal adviser said: “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. So it's not surprising that they want to help.
 
“While some doctors may consider just turning up at a refugee camp to see what help they can offer, it is always advisable to look into the regulatory and legal issues first. Consider whether you need to register with the medical regulatory body of the country you plan to work in, make sure you have the necessary skills and knowledge needed by the group of people you want to help and ensure you are appropriately indemnified.
 
“Alternatively, many doctors arrange their voluntary work via a recognised organisation that has an established infrastructure for note-keeping, medicines management, consent and translation services.”
 
One such organisation is London-based Doctors of the World.
 
Claire Lubert, programme coordinator, told the MDU Journal: “Those volunteering with Doctors of the World to work in the 'Jungle' in Calais 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 we send to Greece, for instance, need to work at all times under the supervision of a registered Greek doctor.”
 
Doctors have also asked about whether it would be appropriate to donate drugs which are past their expiry date, but Dr Mein advises against this.
 
“Donating out of date drugs might seem to be a pragmatic way to avoid waste and help those in need, but it is not something that would be encouraged. The World Health Organization's (WHO) 2011 publication Guidelines for medicine donations says there is a 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.
 
“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. There are also possible repercussions connected to the transport, storage, distribution and safety management of donated drugs, whether in date or not.
 
“So if you're thinking of offering your services to help refugees, make sure you are aware of the legal and regulatory requirements in the country you are working in or better still, contact an organisation with expertise in this area before you travel.”