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Written by Toby Helliwell, Keele University.

WONCA south Asia region (hosted by the Sri Lankan College of General Practitioners). February 11-16 2016

I was recently invited to give a talk with Prof Christian Mallen at the WONCA south Asia region (hosted by the Sri Lankan College of General Practitioners) describing my experiences of undertaking research as a working general practitioner. This was a great opportunity to promote general practice research and to form links and networks with other GPs and family medicine organisations in the region. Accompanying us on the trip was Prof Athula Sumathipala, Professor of Psychiatry and Director of Internationalisation at Keele University and Emeritus Professor of Global Mental Health at Kings College London. Prof Sumathipala also founded the Institute for Research and Development (www.ird.lk) and kindly arranged a packed schedule for our brief visit.

Our first day started with a visit to the Ministry of Health to meet participants on a newly established research leadership programme that was established with support from the Institute for Research and Development. This was after navigating our way through Colombo’s rush-hour morning traffic which made me think that I would never complain again about the traffic for my morning commute! At the Ministry of Health we reviewed some inspiring presentations of research projects that were planned to address some of the real health challenges in Sri Lanka. These included an evaluation of the process of  record keeping  to develop  an effective system for unidentified dead bodies, a study to identify factors for loss to follow up for anti TB treatment among all registered smear positive pulmonary TB patients, an investigation of the quality of work life/quality of student life; perception of post basic nurse trainees in Sri Lanka, the prevalence of brugia malayi filarial parasites among children less than 5 years old in Puttalam district and common mental disorders and substance abuse among adolescents in Vavuniya District.

After a delicious lunch of Lamprais (which is a Sri Lankan-Dutch burger delicacy) which we ate with the presenters and hosts of the morning, we travelled across Colombo and out of the city to the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University (KDU). This institution was previously a military university but since the end of Sri Lanka's Civil War it has opened up to civilian applicants and is awaiting the imminent completion of a brand-new university hospital. We were shown around the campus and were lucky enough to meet the Dean of the medical school and the Vice Chancellor of the University.

We then travelled to the Institute of Research and Development. This Institute seeks to promote and undertake high quality medical research in Sri Lanka and has established a number of high profile collaborations to support this including partners such as Kings College and Keele University. Here we were shown the great diversity of previous and ongoing research projects and the fantastic outputs and publications that the institute had produced. It was humbling to visit an institute which had done so much to promote quality research to improve the health of its population and to meet the dedicated staff who work there.

This visit was swiftly followed by the Wonka SAR inauguration ceremony and dinner where I was able to meet international delegates and talk about primary care in their respective countries.

The conference allowed me to attend an array of different presentations and to get a sense of the wide ranging challenges in family medicine in this part of the world. It was a fantastic opportunity (although quite nerve wracking too when I saw how busy and well attended the session was) to talk about my research experiences in the UK and the real benefits that I believe well conducted primary care research can have for our patients. I was also invited to judge a free paper session with the highest rated talk in our session relating to the challenges associated with examination of red reflex at new-born checks which included some very simple learning points that could ultimately improve outcomes for babies with new-born eye disorders.

My visit to Sri Lanka was completely inspiring, in particular, meeting primary care researchers who are conducting research projects relevant to their region to better the health of their patients. The trip also resulted in forming links and friendships which I hope will lead to a return trip in the future.

Toby Helliwell is based at Keele University.