Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Overseas Aid

Ukraine: the British doctors who have travelled to a war zone to help

BMJ 2022; 377 doi: (Published 28 April 2022) Cite this as: BMJ 2022;377:o990
  1. Chris Stokel-Walker, freelance journalist
  1. Newcastle upon Tyne
  1. stokel{at}

More than 11 million Ukrainians have been forced from their homes as a result of Russia’s invasion. Chris Stokel-Walker speaks to some of the UK doctors who have travelled to Ukraine and its bordering countries to help

Andy Kent was in Yemen on 1 March 2022, working with local doctors to try to treat patients, when he received a call asking him to travel to Ukraine. Kent, an orthopaedic trauma surgeon based at Raigmore Hospital in Inverness, has worked for the past decade with UK-Med, a frontline medical aid charity. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted fears that medical support would be needed to treat patients who were caught up in the fighting or fleeing for their lives.

Kent accepted, and he began the three day trip from Yemen back to Inverness, via Addis Ababa and London. He arrived home but couldn’t stay long. “There was literally just time to swap out my clothing from warm weather clothing to cold weather clothing,” he says. He was on the next plane to Poland, where he met up with colleagues from UK-Med at the border and crossed into Ukraine.

It was an eye opening experience. As Kent and his colleagues entered Ukraine, millions streamed in the opposite direction. For the 7.1 million Ukrainians who have been forced to flee their homes for elsewhere in Ukraine as a result of war, as well as the 4.5 million who have left the country entirely,12 getting treatment for ailments has taken a back seat to survival. But it’s still needed.

Ukraine’s medical system has held up admirably and is the envy of many countries, say UK doctors who have travelled to Ukraine and its neighbouring nations. “They are excellent,” says Paul Ransom, consultant in emergency medicine at Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust, who is currently in eastern Ukraine with UK-Med. Ukraine has 7.46 hospital beds per 1000 people,3 nearly three times the UK’s number.4 And their medical professionals are well trained. “They’ve had eight years already with the hostilities in the Donbas, and they’ve got very good, well trained surgeons and a pretty good ambulance service,” says Ransom.

Reluctance to share information

However, nothing can truly prepare you for an armed invasion. Freda Newlands, an emergency medicine doctor at Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary, who is also working with UK-Med, says, “Although the health service is standing up very, very well under the circumstances, they agreed they could do with a little bit of help with primary health and looking after the chronic medicine of people who moved [within Ukraine].”

Many internally displaced people had a need for mental health and psychological support, as well as more prosaic treatment such as monitoring blood pressure, diabetes, asthma, and other chronic diseases that were “slipping through the net because they hadn’t been monitored, or they didn’t have their medication, or they missed follow-up appointments because of being on the move,” says Newlands.

The visiting doctors have been compelled to move from staying in children’s orphanages to rented apartments, and they initially struggled to convince some Ukrainian doctors to discuss how they could be supported. Kent says, “Ukraine had gone under martial law, which meant that all the hospitals essentially were under military control.

“There was a reluctance for them to talk about their plans for military casualties, and they were definitely not willing to talk about the number of casualties they were hearing about in the east of the country.”

Connections and collegiality were eventually brokered and built, such that UK doctors are helping to offer training and support to Ukraine’s existing infrastructure. Doctors including Ransom and Kent have also been asked to provide “CBRN” training, which equips medics to handle patients who have been subjected to chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear attacks—a grim reminder of the reality of Russian offensive capabilities.

Mixed motivations

All of the doctors who travelled to Ukraine had their own reasons for making the journey. Newlands didn’t become a doctor until she was 48, and her motivation was always to do something humanitarian through her work. “A lot of my friends here in the UK feel that they don’t have a skill they can help with necessarily, and they feel frustrated,” she says. “I’m lucky enough to have a skill I can transfer and to have the time to be able to do it.”

For Ransom, who’s recently gone part time with NHS work, his circumstances coincided with concern for a country he’d previously visited. “I’ve been here before,” he says. “I know the country. And I’ve got really fond of some of the towns I’ve been to before. When it’s a place you know that’s at risk like this, it brings home the human cost.”

Kent’s motivation is a desire to help based on his 20 years in the army, knowing what could happen in a conflict. The fact that it meant him missing a family holiday to the United States is no matter. “I felt that my leave would be better used in Ukraine than in Washington DC,” he says.

For some doctors, the Russian invasion has hit closer to home. Roman Clegg, a Ukrainian born doctor who works at University College London Hospital, has parents living in the western city of Lviv. When Russian troops crossed the border in February he and other British doctors of Ukrainian heritage set up a charity, British-Ukrainian Aid,5 to send medical supplies. From a depot in Essex from which they collected equipment including burn dressings and antibiotics, Clegg and his colleagues travelled to the Ukraine-Poland border.

Clegg is a former president of the Ukraine Medical Association, and when the war began he started receiving phone calls offering help and donations. “We had to face the challenge and start facilitating all these efforts, channelling them to the proper channels,” he says.

He and his colleagues who travelled to the border began treating patients for the first few weeks of the war. “There was nothing acute like trauma but a lot of exacerbation of chronic conditions,” he explains. “Someone off insulin for a few days waiting in the queue on a train, asthma dissipation, heart disease.”

While the humanitarian crisis is just beginning, the expected huge flow of injured and sick people has yet to come. Clegg says that the Ukrainian doctors he speaks to are discouraging volunteers from showing up at the border or in Ukraine, as so many would-be patients have fled the country. Instead, his efforts in the near future may be directed to building a field hospital to support the existing healthcare system.

The medical situation is comparatively calm, at least for now. While Russia claims to be stepping down offensive operations in the country and evidence shows that its soldiers are beating a hasty retreat, having failed in their goal of capturing the country, they are causing chaos as they leave, massacring thousands of people in cities such as Bucha.6 And there’s no guarantee that hostilities will cease entirely—on top of which the country has to rebuild, including its health service, which has been targeted.

“The number one priority is to say thank you to all the medical community, who have been absolutely outstanding,” says Clegg. “Secondly, we’re grateful for foreign assistance and help. But this is a long term thing. We just want people to be mindful that help will be needed for quite some time.”


  • Competing interests: I have read and understood BMJ policy on declaration of interests and have no relevant interests to declare.

  • Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.