Organizations announce new volunteer opportunity for U.S. docs and nurses to train counterparts in disease-ravaged countries

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Peace Corps Director Aaron S. Williams (left) and U.S. Global AIDS Ambassador Eric Goosby address an audience at the Press Club Tuesday morning in Washington.

Three global health organizations are teaming up to stock overseas medical and nursing schools with U.S. health professionals as adjunct faculty. The new program – called the Global Health Service Partnership (GHSP) – “will address health professional shortages by investing in capacity and building support for existing medical and nursing education programs in less developed countries,” according to a press release from the Peace Corps, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) program and the Global Health Service Corps (a non-profit institution). The public-private partnership announced the initiative Tuesday in Washington.

The program is set to begin in Uganda, Malawi and Tanzania in July 2013. Sub-Saharan Africa has a documented shortage of 2.4 million health care workers, with two doctors and 11 nurses per 10,000 people, versus 28 doctors and 87 nurses per 10,000 people in high-income regions of the world.  Volunteers will be given one-year assignments to the Peace Corps Response program and will serve primarily as mentors and medical or nursing educators, working alongside in-country faculty counterparts to teach and transfer clinical skills. Peace Corps Director Aaron S. Williams likened the process to teaching someone to fish, so they can feed themselves for a lifetime.

“We are putting into action a systematic emphasis on physicians and nurses who are volunteering not only to provide care, but to teach, ‘shoulder-to-shoulder,’ as Kennedy put it, with the citizens of the countries where they serve, so that lasting improvements in quality and capacity for health professional education can take root,” Williams said.

In 2004, in the face of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the Institute of Medicine looked at how a strategic investment by the U.S. government to send health professionals to blighted areas could make a difference in global health, said Dr. Fitzhugh Mullan, chair of the Global Health Service Corps. “It took six years to bring us to today’s launch,” he said. The vision for the program goes beyond documenting the scarcity of nursing and medical faculty, but rather aims to bolster faculty and medical education at institutions in some of the world’s most medically challenged countries – institutions he called “the critical engines of health systems strengthening.”

The application process is expected to launch in September 2012 – and volunteers should be on the ground by summer 2013. Like Peace Corps Response volunteers, the GHSP volunteers will receive monthly living stipends, transportation to and from their service country, comprehensive medical care, readjustment allowances and vacation days. If successful during the first year of deployment, they may extend their service for a second year.

The Global Health Service Corps also plans to work independently of the Peace Corps to raise private sector funds to finance loan repayment stipends for eligible volunteers. The presenters did not give details on where the groups will get the funding to support this new initiative. The Obama administration has recommended a decrease in Peace Corps funding for two years in a row, although the program has maintained virtual flat funding for fiscal years 2011 and 2012. This flat funding comes as the number of volunteers and trainees in the field has surpassed 9,000, which hasn’t happened in more than 40 years. The PEPFAR program also experienced a blow from the president’s budget request for FY 2013 – with a recommended decrease of $542.9 million—a reduction of almost 13 percent.

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