Olivia is a 3rd-year Physiotherapy student from Glasgow Caledonian University. She recently travelled to Sri Lanka on a four-week physiotherapy placement to see the differences between healthcare in the UK and in the developing world.
I chose Sri Lanka because of the specific clinical experience I could get there.
And beyond that, I wanted to go somewhere far from home. I realised I might never get the chance to travel like this again!
Someone from Work the World (the organisation who planned my placement) met me at the airport in Sri Lanka. We then travelled together to the Work the World house.
It took me a few days to settle in and get to know my housemates, but it was easy as everyone was so welcoming and friendly.
But my first day of placement was nerve-wracking. But I was taken to the hospital and introduced to the staff I’d be working with, which made things much easier.
I spent two weeks in the outpatient department, observing physiotherapists in both the paediatric and adult departments.
I spent the rest of my placement shadowing and assisting physiotherapists in wards around the hospital. It was a fantastic experience, and I saw a real variety of patients. I even spent two days observing in the neurological and surgical theatres.
Many patients could not afford to travel to the hospital. So, every fortnight, the head physiotherapist went out to the rural areas. I went with him on two of these visits. The trips were eye-opening and gave me the chance to see a bit of rural Sri Lanka.
During the first visit, I was excited to see not only housing conditions, but also the standards of treatment given considering the limited available resources and time restrictions.
We arrived at a community church and met a few of the nurses who were based there. We travelled together to a local house where patients had gathered.
It turned out that someone in the community had offered their home as a space for those attending the clinic. We treated about 20 patients in her living room and bedroom!
This is just one example of how different healthcare delivery could be when comparing Sri Lanka to the UK. Spending time in this community helped me realise how lucky we are to have what we have at home. Some families had one double bed in the house, with as many as five or six living under one roof.
In the UK we have reliable electricity, water and heating at the flick of a switch. And most of us probably take it for granted.
Talking specifically about the healthcare system, the biggest difference between Sri Lanka and the UK was the ratio of physiotherapists to patients.
There were only 19 physiotherapists in the hospital. They had to treat all patients who required physiotherapy in both the hospital and the outpatient department.
When a patient had an outpatient appointment, they were given an hour for an initial assessment. Then they’d have a one-to-one, 30-minute follow-up appointment.
In my placement hospital’s outpatient department, about 15 patients came into the gym every hour. There were only two physiotherapists.
Treatments were also quite different from back home. And understandably so—the hospital had limited resources and supplies. In some wards there were two patients to a bed. Sometimes there were patients on the floor. The staff did their best with what little equipment they had. They maximised the care they could provide by being inventive at every opportunity.
After placement each evening, and at the weekends, we travelled. On my first weekend, a few of the girls who had already been in the house for a while had planned to go to a place called Negombo. They invited me to travel with them.
We had a chilled weekend, spending the majority of it by the pool and drinking cocktails. We went shopping too and bought souvenirs to take home.
The following weekend (my favourite) we went to Trincomalee to visit the beaches. The snorkeling there was amazing. We arrived late afternoon on Friday and ventured down to the beach for a swim in the sea.
One afternoon trip we took was to Sigiriya Rock. It was a fair climb, but worth it. The views from the top were incredible. I spent my last weekend in Sri Lanka in Arugam Bay, lying on the beach and enjoying the scenery. We found the most beautiful spot and had a relaxing weekend in the sun.
From the moment I stepped off the plane to the moment stepped back on, I loved Sri Lanka. I left the UK with an open mind and that really helped me make the most of my time away.
It was genuinely the best experience of my life, and I am so proud of myself for completing my elective placement in Sri Lanka.
If you’re considering doing a placement overseas, go for it!
You only live once, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Work the World specialise in tailoring overseas physiotherapy placements in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Their destinations provide eye-opening insight into the challenges associated with delivering healthcare in the developing world.