Through the pandemic the ranks of the NHS have been bolstered by a special group of doctors, who also happen to be refugees.
They’ve been taken on as Medical Support Workers (MSW), part of a £15m NHS England scheme that helps international medical graduates living in the UK pass the exams needed to register with the GMC.
The MSW role is suitable for those who have a medical qualification but have been out of clinical practice for over a year and need to work under clinical supervision.
There are thought to be more than a thousand refugees on the scheme in hospitals and trusts across the country.
The Royal London Hospital has about 50 MSWs, helping to fill a shortage of specialist medics, while fulfilling a humanitarian objective in getting people into jobs they have the right skills for.
Mohammad Saoud trained to be a doctor in Syria before coming to the UK, where he is now a medical support worker at the Royal London Hospital.
“Actually I think my mother wanted me to be a doctor because I have two brothers and two sisters. My two sisters are doctors and one of my brothers is a pharmacist, and my older brother is a lawyer. My mother wanted us to become doctors,” he said.
“In Syria, it’s a different system compared to the UK. The training system isn’t organised like here. It’s not supported like here. Here I see the trainees are very supported and observed by other consultants.”
He added: “We don’t have this in Syria and the duration of the training here is much longer than in Syria. For example, in radiology the training there is four years, but here it’s about six or seven years.
“It wasn’t easy. It was really challenging because, in order to go to university in Syria to study medicine, you have to be at the highest mark in secondary school, it’s very competitive and the study for medicine is six years.
“It was a long journey.”
Mr Saoud decided to leave Syria after working in the military service during the civil war.
“I used to work in the radiology department in the military hospital and I saw a lot of cases and people hurt. So it was difficult for me to stay there because I was under huge pressure and I started to be affected mentally,” he said.
Due to his time in the military service, Mohammad explained how he was unable to leave the country legally because his ID had been taken from him.
He added: “I left Syria in 2012 and because I was in military service at that time I couldn’t leave Syria legally because I didn’t have the ID.
“When you go into military service the government takes your ID from you.
“I had to leave Syria illegally, so I walked across the border between Syria and Lebanon, for seven hours in the night, and so I could leave at that time.
“The picture in the boat was taken when I was between Turkey and Greece. It was really overwhelming journey with a lot of bad memories.
“It took a long time, with a lot of people, women and children. And I can say that people at that time, they were not treated like human beings at all. It was a disaster.”
Once he arrived in the UK, Mohammad said he faced issues when trying to find work as a doctor – he was “mentally affected” by his bad experiences, had to improve his English and get GMC registration.
But thanks to organisations such as the Refugee Council, he managed to get the support and help he needed.
On working in the NHS, Mohammad said: “I’m very happy to work here, and am proud to be a part of the NHS.
“It’s a big hospital and the team here is very supportive. Since I started here in the ITU ward I get a lot of support from other doctors and when I moved to the radiology department as well.
“I feel that I am safe, supported by the other consultants here which makes me very happy here.
“Actually when I started in February, that was the peak of the pandemic. It was really overwhelming here, and seeing a lot of people around you suffering,” he added.
“But to be honest, the people here and the medical teams worked very hard, very hard. And I was astonished by how they worked and how they are working hard and giving the patient the high standard of the service.”
“I would like to thank all the team here at the Royal London Hospital and all the doctors responsible for the MSW project. It’s huge for us, big help for us to be in the NHS.”
After training to be a doctor in Yemen, Ahlam Mutahar Muthanna, started working in the humanitarian field, helping people caught up in war and conflict.
Now, like Mohammad, she is a medical support worker at Royal London Hospital.
She said: “At first it was the dream of my father. My father was so keen that I should go into medicine and he wanted someone from the family to become a doctor so he wanted me to become a doctor and I found myself in medicine.
“I was trained in Yemen, in Taiz University in Taiz City. So basically, the university of medicine is very basic.
“Yemen has a very primitive healthcare system, so our hospital has basic investigations so basic things that patients can have.
“Although the hospitals are public hospitals and free, it was difficult for patients,” she added. “They have to buy their own medicines, they have to pay for their own investigations, so it was not easy for us as students.
“We wouldn’t like the things we see, only the common diseases. It’s very difficult for most of the patients to reach the diagnosis of rare diseases and mostly patients present with lots of complications. It wasn’t easy to get into medicine in Yemen.”
Before the country descended into war, Ahlam worked in a private hospital but it was not equipped to the level she was expecting and soon “most of the hospitals became militarised”.
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“I remember hospitals being attacked and also some hospitals were being used as military bases shelling other hospitals,” she said.
“And so I didn’t find it safe to continue working in hospitals, so I found myself drifted away from practising medicine and joined humanitarian work so I started working with Oxfam, serving patients in rural areas of Yemen, especially people displaced from cities who were living in rural areas now.”
After graduating from university, Ahlam said it was “very difficult to get any opportunity, especially as a female”.
She explained: “The only solution was to leave the country at that time. But migration as a female is a hard decision to make.
“But at the same time, you can just sit there and not do anything, so I just drifted away and continued in the humanitarian field, started helping people, in war and conflict settings.”I
n February, she managed to land an opportunity at the Royal London Hospital in intensive care, where she said she saw a “different world”.
“In Yemen, we still have the film X-rays, we’d only have the basic investigations. So looking at how easy it is for a patient to have a CT scan, how easy it is for a patient to have an MRI, and what also attracted my attention was how patients are really treated with dignity and with equity.
“You know, most patients stay at home, families are at home and you just update them every day by phone.
“While, in Yemen, the family has to stay at the ITU ward 24/7 because if you have to order an X-ray for a patient in Yemen, the family has to carry the patient out to get the X-ray, or sometimes even transport them out of the hospital for an MRI or CT scan,” she explained.
When asked about working for the NHS, Ahlam said: “What I found really that has astonished me is that they tackle every aspect of health, whether social or mental wellbeing or environmental wellbeing.
“Before we send patients home we have to send a team of occupational therapists to assess the house, how suitable is it for the patient to go back to their houses.
“And then all the things that have to be arranged at the home is done by the NHS and care also happens at the community level. This is really fascinating to see happening here and I’m very proud to be here with the NHS.”
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