South Asian Heritage Month runs from 18th July to 17th August every year. It seeks to raise the profile of British South Asian heritage and history in the UK through education, arts, culture and commemoration, with the goal of helping people to better understand the diversity of present-day Britain and improve social cohesion across the country.

As a College with a diverse range of Fellows and Members based in the UK and internationally, the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh is proud to support and celebrate South Asian Heritage Month. Globally, our Fellows and Members are based in over 100 countries, covering 54 medical specialties and interests.

Prof Sunil Bhandari, Vice President (England and Wales) is a Consultant in Nephrology and Honorary Professor at Hull York Medical School (HYMS) and Hull University Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust; Co-Director of UK Advanced Nephrology Course and Deputy Head of School of Medicine for Yorkshire and Humber. Here he shares some of his thoughts as we mark this occasion in the College:

“In our NHS in the UK, currently 30% of medical staff are from an Asian background and therefore vital to the delivery of health care in the UK. This is nothing new- South Asian staff have a long and significant history of working for the NHS, responding to UK Government recruitment campaigns to fill the vacancies in the health service.

As reported in the Guardian, doctors from India and Pakistan came in huge numbers in response to an appeal in the early 1960s. More than 18,000 subsequently arrived in the UK, underpinning healthcare provision in many areas. It was reported in 2003 that in the Rhondda valley, in Wales, 73% of GPs were south Asian.

This has brought huge diversity to the NHS in many ways over the years and importantly has enabled a great exchange of cultures and values which benefits us all.  Recently, the College’s Medical Training Initiative has offered a great way for international junior and middle-grade doctors to train and work in the UK for up to 2 years, whilst enabling NHS Boards and Trusts to fill rota gaps with high quality staff (pictured are a group of our 2018 MTI doctors).

On a personal note, I married a Scottish girl from Lanarkshire – it has been wonderful to have first-hand experience of this integration of cultures, as well as the initial challenges in understanding different accents! My own family has adopted many aspects of both South Asian and UK cultures and values, and I believe this diversity makes us stronger as a result.

I am sure many colleagues in the UK have attended colourful and evocative Indian wedding ceremonies, full of dancing, music, wonderful food and stunning dress with magnificent saris being shown off. Such celebrations are, for me, why marking South Asian Heritage Month is so important. Our cultures and peoples can achieve so much together.

My father said to me, “be the best you can be in whatever you do, and make time to give to others as this will bring a smile and sense of well-being to both them and you.” This ethos has motivated me throughout my career in the NHS and now, as Vice President of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh this is still something I strive towards every day.

In many ways our world is smaller than ever, and it is so important that our institutions, policy makers and governments ensure that relationships between the UK and South Asian countries continue to flourish. Looking forward, the College will pursue our close collaboration with Asian colleagues, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of offering support to clinicians internationally through our network of Overseas Regional Advisers. In recent years (pre- COVID) the College has hosted joint conferences with colleagues internationally, such as the 6th Medicon International Advanced Medicine Symposium in Kolkata in 2019 (pictured) and our representatives have attended excellent events such as the 36th Annual Pakistan Society of Gastroenterology (PSG) Conference in 2020 and College roll signing ceremony (pictured). At this time, past College President Prof Derek Bell met with the President of Pakistan, Dr Arif Alvi to announce that a PACES examination centre would open in Pakistan to serve the large number of candidates.

There has also been great collaboration on vaccines during the pandemic between the UK and India: the Serum Institute of India (SII) manufactures Vaxzevria, which is approved for use by the United Kingdom regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and is the same as the COVID-19 University of Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. Millions of doses have been administered in the UK through this partnership.

South Asian Heritage Month offers us a chance to look back and reflect on what great things we can achieve when we work together - and in looking forward, we can see the potential for great collaborations to come, whether in science, medicine, culture or on a personal level through the union of families. Diversity is truly an asset and I am proud that the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh welcomes the chance to mark this important occasion”.