Global and Disaster Health Special Interest Group: Evidence Aid and me

Author: Isla Kuhn

In the past few weeks we’ve been overwhelmed with examples of extraordinary courage from ordinary people. People who have run towards danger, whether it’s been their paid role or not. It’s truly humbling and inspiring. I don’t like to assume that I would be able to act so selflessly (and hope I never have to put it to the test). These sudden flash points sometimes require an instinctive reaction, as well as a planned and rehearsed response.

Natural disasters and epidemics require a slightly different response from those who go to help. Organisations like Medicine sans frontierDoctors of the WorldRed Cross and many more have extraordinary teams who come together in times of crisis. The story of Will Pooley might be familiar to you. I know one doctor, with significant experience in emergency medicine, who has gone to virtually every crisis in the past 25 years – from war-torn Sarajevo, to famine-ravaged Sudan, the earthquakes in Nepal and Haiti, as well as the effort to stem the spread of ebola in Sierra Leone. A highly skilled and highly experienced medic who also sees part of his role to be bearing witness and then advocating for the professionals involved on his return.

But outside the highly dramatic, glamorous? world of emergency relief work, there is a political landscape that can have consequences for peoples’ health. There are also many people who try to help those who reach our shores fleeing political persecution, working for organisations like Freedom from Torture. I know a GP who volunteers by writing medical reports which form part of the appeals procedure when asylum seekers have had their initial applications turned down. The report gives expert opinion on whether the asylum seeker has scarring (physical or mental) consistent with torture. The conversations, between doctor and asylum seeker, usually with the aid of an interpreter, are harrowing for all parties. Interestingly part of the benefit to the asylum seeker, beyond the legal document, is the opportunity to tell their story, to be heard.

I can’t do any of that. I can’t run into a war zone, or the aftermath of an earthquake, date stamp at the ready, and do anything useful. I don’t think I have the emotional resilience, never mind the medical skills to be able to cope with a conversation about the torture that the person in front of me had sustained. And that was starting to make me feel pretty impotent. Even a monetary donation didn’t seem very satisfying, though it was something I could and did do.

My skill set is different, which is why, when I heard about Evidence Aid, I thought – now’s my chance! I came across Evidence Aid rather by chance, because I follow CEBM on Twitter and noticed a tweet about their partnership.

I had a poke around on the Evidence Aid website, and saw lots of words that matched  my skill set – systematic reviews, evidence summaries, open access publications. I came the conclusion that this could be my way of doing something practical.

I dropped them a line, had a lovely conversation with Claire Allen, and discovered that librarian volunteers were exactly the sort of people they needed to support their work in summarising and synthesising evidence on various topics – the big one at the time was Zika Virus.

So here I am, 6 months in, and what does it actually mean to volunteer for Evidence Aid?

I’m just about to submit my 9th summary of a review on Zika & Dengue (I’ve got to know a lot more about Zika than before, but you don’t need to be an expert by any stretch). I get a couple of papers at a time, and have taken roughly 2-3 weeks to summarise them. The workload is very flexible – I just keep in touch, and say in advance if I’m away, or unable to take on more work.

Using a mixture of Slack, Mendeley and Dropbox, I liaise with the project coordinator, Shona, via Slack. She assigns me a paper using a shared group on Mendeley. There is a standard format for presenting the summaries (I draft mine using Google Drive) which I then upload to Dropbox. Shona gives them the once over, gives me any feedback via Slack (this was very helpful in the beginning, and I’m pleased that I seem to be getting the hang of it now!), and then the summaries are loaded onto the Evidence Aid website. Really simple.

Now I have to confess that there are additional benefits to the warm and fuzzy feeling that I’m actually doing something socially useful (yes, I know, simply by being a librarian I’m doing a socially useful, but you know what I mean, I hope).

I get to practice the synthesising and summarising skills which I want to develop for my day job. But that’s ok, isn’t it? Everyone wins.

I would thoroughly volunteering for Evidence Aid, or a similar organisation – it’s only as much of a time commitment as you are able to offer, lets you contribute to a really worthwhile aim, and might let you practice a professional skill that you mightn’t otherwise be able to.

Finally, a date for your diary:

Humanitarian Evidence Week:
6 – 12 November 2017

The aim is to provide an international platform (held each year) for actors that contribute to the generation, use or dissemination of evidence in support of humanitarian action, to share and discuss views on the topic, and to promote related activities.

You and your library can be an associate or a supporter – find out more, and please get involved.

#HumanitarianEvidence & #HEW2017

Isla small headshotIsla has worked in health and medical libraries since 1999, working for University of Oxford, University of Leicester and most recently University of Cambridge. Her work involves teaching information skills to clinical staff, postgraduate and undergraduate students. She also supports the development of systematic reviews, and has been co-author of more than 20 in the past 4 years. She has been volunteering with Evidence Aid since January 2017.