Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland role in Russia's healthcare

By Allan Preston

A former civil servant has told of how Northern Ireland changed the face of healthcare in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union.

In the 1990s Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev brought democratic reform, prompting an offer from the European Union to help transform the highly-centralised health system.

A group from Northern Ireland won the first big contract, having already forged an unlikely partnership with Soviet medics.

Remarkably, nearly half of St Petersburg's 5 million population now use the new GP system they introduced.

Dr Rob McQuiston worked for the overseas body NICARE and remembers his "grim" first impressions of life in Russia. "Change was very badly needed," he recalled. "The general standard of living was terrible, the health service itself was pretty grim, to be honest.

"Even day to day life, there was nothing to buy in the shops.

"One day we saw a huge queue at a department store. It turns out there had just been a delivery of electric kettles and everybody was desperate to have one."

His team helped to establish a pilot programme of four GP-led practices in St Petersburg.

Similar models were rolled out in the cities of Samara, Ekaterinburg and Kemerovo in Western Siberia.

He said patients were quick to flock to the new service despite a frosty reception from some health officials. "There was quite a lot of resistance, not from patients but the management level of the health service," he said.

"They were wedded to the old system of polyclinics, which would often see patients self-refer themselves to the wrong type of doctor.

"They couldn't afford to provide for that, so the quality was very low. GPs at least had a limited referral service but of a much higher quality."

The unusual collaboration first began when Dr McQuiston met a Soviet delegation at a world health summit in Geneva.

A technical exchange programme was agreed, which saw Russian doctors trained at Queen's University to become GPs and GP trainers.

Dr McQuiston, who has published a book about his experiences, Born in the USSR, is currently working with Ulster University to evaluate the progress of the St Petersburg programme so far.

Belfast Telegraph

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