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Voices: Dr. Claire Hawcroft (UK)

Abridged excerpts from interview with:

Dr. Claire Hawcroft (UK)
Placement: Mseleni Clinic, KwaZulu-Natal
Dates: 2015-2016

I came to medicine in what is perhaps an unconventional way.

It was not my original intention to be a doctor. Rather, I’d always been interested in international health and development, and, in fact, studied medicine only as a graduate, after having completed another degree first. It was my interest in those other fields – and in working abroad – that led me to medicine.

You can understand why, then, as a doctor, I always wanted the opportunity to work in global international health.

I had various medical colleagues who’d worked in South Africa through AHP, and they’d described it to me – so it was always on my radar. Then, when I started my GP, it was offered to me as an opportunity. There was already this established link between the UK and South Africa.

Another thing that drew me to AHP is that it’s something of a unique programme in terms of opportunities to work abroad, in that you’re actually employed by the government, and you’re filling a valid role, or gap, that they need to fill.

Also, South Africa is quite a unique healthcare environment in that the rural areas, where you’re working, is really a resource-poor, developing country-type setting, and yet you do have access to moderate resources. So in the right scenarios you can still sometimes get access to specialist care and treatment. It’s not a completely resource-limited environment.

So in that sense it’s quite an interesting setting, compared with some of the other sub-Saharan countries, where they have far weaker public healthcare systems, and you have to learn to do less because of the technology available.

My year in South Africa was, so far, probably the year of my medical career where I learnt the most, and grew the most, as a doctor, and also personally, in many ways, as well. But it was also the most challenging year of medicine I’ve ever done. So it was kind of the best and the hardest of times all rolled into one.

You’re exposed to issues and pathology you just don’t see in the UK; working in different conditions, and with much more limited resources. So you’re initially stretched outside of your comfort zone every day. Although quite quickly your comfort zone moves and you realise you are capable of doing more than you thought you could.

The experience has also helped me coming back into general practice in the UK, since it taught me some of those more general skills – to work under pressure, to work quickly, to work with uncertainty and risk – that are important wherever you are. A lot of those things were things I found quite stressful previously, and now, having come back, I find a lot less stressful.

[My AHP placement] also served to reinforce my interest in international health, as well as public health. I am also an academic trainee – I’m doing research at the moment, and I’ve managed to get on board with an international project. So it has stimulated my interest in that area as well: recognising the importance of strong public health systems.

I’m considering maybe doing a Masters in public health, or something related, that I can then use further down the line.

I don’t think an AHP placement is for everyone. But I think that if it’s something that you’re interested in doing, and you’re ready to take on the challenge, then go for it; there is every chance you’ll have an incredible year. But you have to be realistic about what’s going to be involved. I, personally, am very glad that I did it, and if I had the chance to do it again, I definitely would. If it’s the right thing for you – and it’s something you’re genuinely interested in – you’ll probably have an amazing experience.