A Peace Corps for Health

Fitzhugh Mullan smiles in front of map background
SPHHS professor Fitzhugh Mullan helped launch the Global Health Service Partnership last week. The program will place doctors, nurses and other health care professionals as adjunct faculty in medical or nursing schools overseas.
March 19, 2012

By Anna Miller

In 2007, Fitzhugh Mullan, Murdock Head Professor of Medicine and Health Policy, wrote an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association calling for a conceptual blend of the Peace Corps and the National Health Service Corps.

The hypothetical organization, he wrote in the article titled “A Peace Corps for Health” would “help mobilize the numbers of U.S. health workers ready to commit to working abroad in the long-term battle against HIV/AIDS and other diseases of poverty.”

Although the idea for such a program was supported by reports from the Institute of Medicine and the World Health Organization, and bits of draft legislation “rattled around” Capitol Hill, it didn’t gain quite enough traction to take hold. The timing just wasn’t right.

But last week, it was. “It felt like the forces were suddenly in alignment,” said Dr. Mullan, a professor in the Department of Health Policy in the GW School of Public Health and Health Services. Along with other national leaders in health policy and global health, Dr. Mullan announced the creation of the Global Health Service Partnership (GHSP) at the National Press Club on March 13.

Dr. Mullan credits his colleague, Vanessa Kerry, an internist at Massachusetts General Hospital and executive director of the Global Health Service Corps, with bringing the forces together.

“Dr. Kerry’s commitment over the last year made the difference,” he said. “She convinced the Peace Corps that this was an important and doable initiative.”

The Global Health Service Partnership is a collaboration between the Peace Corps, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Global Health Service Corps, an independent organization. The program will place doctors, nurses and other health care professionals as adjunct faculty in medical or nursing schools overseas where they will serve as members of the Peace Corps. The first placements are expected to be in Tanzania, Malawi and Uganda in 2013.

“Through this exciting new partnership, the Peace Corps will supply medical and nursing professionals to help developing countries strengthen their public health systems,” said Peace Corps Director Aaron S. Williams at GHSP’s launch. “By building on the Peace Corps’ model of grassroots assistance, as well as our existing infrastructure in developing countries, we will work with medical and nursing schools to build capacity, bring critical prevention and health care to remote communities and provide additional service opportunities for Americans.”

The announcement was particularly gratifying to Dr. Mullan, who was the principal investigator of the Sub-Saharan African Medical School Study, which examined medical education in sub-Saharan Africa in order to advise on ways to boost the schools’ capacity and better retain their graduates. The number one conclusion drawn from the study, which was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and concluded in 2010, was that “faculty insufficiency is an epidemic in Africa,” he said.

GHSP addresses this critical gap in medical education by placing American professionals in adjunct faculty positions abroad. Unlike other volunteer health organizations that offer temporary clinical relief, GHSP’s effects aim to be sustainable.

“The partnership is a strategic investment based on research and experience in medical and nursing education,” said Dr. Mullan.

The three organizations that make up GHSP — PEPFAR, the Peace Corps and the Global Health Service Corps — bring complementary strengths to the table. PEPFAR is responsible for the initial funding. The Peace Corps will use its established portal, Peace Corps Response, to place applicants in positions overseas.

As board chair of the Global Health Service Corps, a key partner in the GHSP, Dr. Mullan will oversee aspects of technical and educational support, implement training programs for volunteers’ orientation, help with site development and assist in the recruitment and selection of volunteers.

“Placing a surgeon, for example, in an African teaching hospital comes with a lot of challenges like orientation, supervision and continuing medical education,” Dr. Mullan said.

What’s more, American doctors need to be prepared to care for patients with diseases like malaria that are nearly nonexistent in the United States.

Part of the volunteers’ training will focus on what Dr. Mullan and others call “voltage adjustment,” or the transition between a high-tech American hospital system to bare-bones rural clinics.

The Global Health Service Corps will also fundraise in order to offer loan repayment for young doctors, whom Dr. Mullan expects to make up many of the volunteers. Recently retired physicians and doctors on sabbatical could also be members of the team.

Mr. Williams, the Peace Corps director, reminded the audience at GHSP’s launch that the idea for a Peace Corps for health dates back to President John F. Kennedy, who stressed the inclusion of doctors and nurses when he first called for a Peace Corps during his 1960 campaign.

”This brings us full circle to that vision,” said Mr. Williams.

James Scott, professor of medicine at GW’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences who is also involved with GHSP, agreed.

“As a former Peace Corps volunteer, I am honored to be a part of this commitment by the Peace Corps and PEPFAR,” he said. “I see this as a completion of President Kennedy’s original vision of the Peace Corps to include nurses and doctors.” I am very excited about the opportunity to work with medical educators from across the country, and particularly those at GW, who want to serve as teaching physicians in Africa.”

Though it’s been years in the making, for Dr. Mullan, the best is yet to come. “Seeing the first people in the field — now that will be exciting,” he said.

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