Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” I believe wholeheartedly that education is a spark that can light the fires of many minds.
For much of my career, I have worked in resource-limited settings where I have witnessed people’s lives dramatically and often unfairly affected by struggling health-care systems. Health-worker shortages limit the abilities of many countries to deliver even basic health care, let alone respond to more complex needs.
Exacerbating the problem is the current global disease burden, which is highest where personnel shortages are worst. Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, has nearly a quarter of the global disease burden, but only 3 percent of the global health workforce. While many public health efforts have expanded the number of frontline providers, there has not been the same focus on highly skilled doctors, nurses and midwives.
The solution, in concept, is simple: health professional training. Investing in a strong, qualified generation of doctors, nurses and midwives is essential to better health-care delivery and stronger health systems. Despite the breadth of efforts to strengthen human resources for health, there are very few programs that invest in current and future generations of public-sector medical and nursing faculty.
The Global Health Service Partnership (GHSP) – a public-private partnership between Seed Global Health, the United States Peace Corps, and the United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) – is implementing this education-based approach on a global scale. In collaboration with host country governments and training institutions, GHSP sends U.S. physicians, nurses and midwives as volunteer educators for one year to medical and nursing schools in Malawi, Tanzania, and Uganda. There, they immediately increase teaching capacity and support clinical-care delivery. Alongside local faculty, these health professionals teach trainees in classrooms and on wards and help to develop innovative teaching tools and clinical guidelines.
We are already seeing the ripple effects from this program’s model. Our inaugural class of 30 GHSP volunteers taught more than 2,500 trainees.
Maureen, an OB/GYN volunteer working in rural Tanzania, trained 45 hospital-based labor nurses on life-saving labor practices this past spring. Shortly after, her fellow physicians asked if she had also taught nurses in the rural villages. Maureen had not, but the 45 labor nurses had spread the word and even taught the community doctors. Maureen had trained the hospital staff, and the effects had spread throughout the community rapidly.
When Dorothy, a GHSP nurse serving in northern Tanzania, realized that her trainees were lacking hands-on experience – a common issue in many of our sites – she worked alongside her students on the wards to supplement what she taught them in the classroom. One day, a student ran up to her and said, “Madam, I diagnosed a patient with pneumonia! He had a cough, chest pain and respiratory distress!” The bedside training pushed the students beyond their theoretical lessons to successfully treat patients in the clinical setting.
Skilled health professionals like Maureen and Dorothy are providing essential training to local faculty, who in turn provide ongoing support to frontline health workers, improving health care now and for generations to come.
The GHSP model has been called the “missing link of health care delivery” by Dr. Joyce Banda, former president of Malawi. It is not only effective, but also efficient. The program leverages the Peace Corps’ 50-plus years of experience placing U.S. volunteers abroad and combines it with Seed Global Health’s technical expertise and experience in medical and nursing education. The GHSP places U.S. health professionals at a lower cost compared with many other programs, and builds deep, mutually beneficial relationships with in-country partners.
Seed Global Health also offers debt repayment to offset education, mortgage or other financial burdens, reducing barriers for the highest-qualified candidates to engage in service.
To help meet demand, GHSP is expanding. We are sending 42 volunteers to all of the same sites and several new ones.
One of Maureen’s students sent her a thank-you note in which he said, “A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle.” And then he continued, “You were that candle to us, and I will light another new candle someday!”
Education has the power to transform global health. It is up to us to light the fire.
Photo credit: Robin Moore/PSI.