Emergency pediatric care specialist Adelene Hilbig: life on MSF assigment

04 May 2023

Adelene Hilbig is an emergency room doctor from Melbourne.

Her work with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has taken her to Sierra Leone, Palestine and Myanmar.

MSF will be presenting a live webinar with Adelene to answer all your questions about working with MSF. If you are interested in joining MSF’s project teams, we encourage you to join this webinar (or watch a recording if you can’t make it) prior to applying.

What is your usual role in Australia, and how did you come to work with MSF? 

As a doctor in Australia I've spent time working in Melbourne, Geelong and Alice Springs. I’ve been training with the Australasian College of Emergency Medicine since 2017, with the goal of working as an emergency department physician.  

I spent some time during my undergraduate medical degree studying in Malaysia, which contributed to an interest in working overseas. I’m intrigued by different health systems and ways of delivering healthcare, and with healthcare delivery in rural contexts. When it came to considering the organisation to work with, it was MSF’s principles—neutrality, impartiality and independence—that made MSF stand out. The benefits those principles have for patient care in a health context are important to me.  

Your most recent assignment was in Kenema, Sierra Leone. What was that experience like?  

I was working in the hospital that MSF supports in Kenema as an emergency room (ER) doctor, in a team of clinicians and nurses. At the time, the project was providing care for children of one month to five years of age. We were treating a lot of patients with malaria, meningitis, malnutrition, pneumonia, tuberculosis, HIV and gastroenteritis. Disease outbreaks and years of civil war have hugely affected the healthcare system in Sierra Leone, and child mortality rates remain high. 

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An MSF nurse checks on a child at Hangha hospital in Kenema, Sierra Leone. © Mohammed Sanabani/MSF

Part of my role was helping the ER team develop skills to deliver emergency paediatric care. It was quite similar to the work I do in Australia, working with colleagues and especially junior clinicians to build skillsets in emergency medicine.

One of the highlights of my time there was working with some of the senior clinicians and nurses to deliver an ‘ETAT’ refresher course, on emergency triage assessment and treatment of sick children, for staff. It was rewarding to see newer colleagues in the team have the opportunity to develop and practice those skills, and witness how that translated into their clinical care.

Across my work with MSF, the most rewarding aspect has been seeing a fellow clinician master a new skill—whether that’s a patient examination, or a technical skill like inserting a cannula or an intraosseous line (through bone cortex)—and seeing how that builds their confidence and ability to deliver the best patient care possible. It comes down to the reason behind MSF’s work: patients need to always be front and centre of what we do.

What advice do you have for healthcare workers interested in working with MSF?

To clinicians, I would say to ensure you take time to develop a strong foundation in your own clinical practice, and in mentoring followship as well as leadership. Interpersonal skills and conflict resolution are also important.

“You need to do your due diligence to try to understand the intricacies of the health system in which you’re operating.” 

Adelene Hilbig
MSF doctor

The one thing I find myself saying time and time again, to people who are interested, is that I have learned so much more from the teams I've worked with than I could ever hope to bring to them. That includes everything from patient care and specific disease management, to innovation and resourcefulness, and some of those management and leadership skills.

When going to work in an MSF project, keep in mind that you’re joining an amazing team of local staff who are hugely experienced. They likely have been there for a long time and they'll be there long after you leave. 

How do you navigate different healthcare systems? 

I think whenever you go to someone else's healthcare system, be it interstate or international, you need to do your due diligence to try to understand the intricacies of the system in which you’re operating. That means talking with the team that you've joined and understanding where your service fits in the healthcare system, and how you can best support patients to access the care they need within that system. 

Are you interested?

If you are genuinely interested in becoming a field worker, we strongly encourage you to register our next webinar "Ask us anything" on 17th May at 6pm AEST.

 

REGISTER HERE

Our doctors’ work can range from responding to outbreaks of cholera or meningitis, to treating survivors of armed conflict, or setting up treatment programs for HIV/AIDS or malaria. They require strong clinical skills and resourcefulness, as well as managerial, teaching and administration skills.