Conversations from AIDS 2012: Vanessa Kerry on partnering with the Peace Corps

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WASHINGTON, DC — Vanessa Kerry, the daughter of Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts and his first wife, Julia Thorne, is a doctor working at Massachusetts General Hospital and founder of the non-profit Global Health Service Corps. Her organization has partnered with the Peace Corps to develop the Global Health Service Partnership. The partnership will send health professionals abroad to work as medical educators starting next year.

Kerry talked to GlobalPost about the partnership, her reasons for working with the Peace Corps on the project and her parents' influence on her.

John Donnelly: Can you describe the partnership?

Vanessa Kerry: We will be sending doctors and nurses abroad to partner with host institutions in developing countries. There’s a major bottleneck to health system scale-up in many countries because of the shortage of faculty in many nursing and medical schools.

JD: Why work with the Peace Corps?

VK: In 1960, President Kennedy gave a speech at 2 a.m. one morning on steps of the University of Michigan, and said, "Who of you will be the doctors that go to Ghana?" He laid out a vision for Americans to go abroad, lend their technical capabilities, and really engage in the world. The Peace Corps has done that for 50 years, but they haven’t done it programmatically with the professional capacity of doctors, nurses, and health professionals.

JD: How did you come up with this idea?

VK: I have worked in medicine and global health for over 10 years and have seen the needs on the ground. I also have seen the massive interest in global health among people in this country, and I see the disconnect. A lot of people want to go help and there has been limited structure for it. They may spend a few weeks in country, and while they do noble work, it doesn’t necessarily make a major, lasting difference.

JD: Can you lay out briefly how you hope this will unfold?

VK: We have a five-year plan, and we’ll have 30 health professionals in the first year, starting in July 2013. We will scale up quickly to at least 180 people by year five. Over time, we plan to include other health professionals, including those who work in administration, pharmacy, physical therapy, or medical technology. We’re also interested in seeing this expand domestically. Our goal is to provide health professional experts in areas that lack necessary human resources.

JD: Paul Farmer has told me that one of the hardest things for US groups working in the developing world is to find the right types of people to do the job. In particular, he stressed how difficult it is to train doctors to spend a year or two working in hospitals or clinics in rural areas of a developing country. Do you agree?

VK: He’s right. It can be very difficult. I don’t worry about the pool of people out there who are smart and talented and interested. But our responsibility is to figure out who is open to the rigors of working in a place where you don’t have the same technology and experience death much more than you see in this country.

JD: Would this interest you?

VK: Absolutely.

JD: Why?

VK: I have always tried to be aware of the opportunity that I’ve had in my life, and I’ve always been incredibly struck by the inequities that exist in the world. For me, there’s a huge, I guess, responsibility that I as an individual and we collectively have to contribute to decreasing that inequity. Plus, I’ve worked in Rwanda a long time, I’ve worked in Uganda. I’ve seen with enough hands on deck that changes can be made.

JD: What was your father’s influence in this?

VK: That’s slightly complicated. I grew up in a house where my father and mother both made sure I knew I was no different than anyone else, and that I needed to be engaged in my communities. That is the legacy of my parents. My dad is a public servant, and that commitment has guided my choices.

But for the specifics of this program, my dad has had nothing directly to do with it. I barely told him about it. We were able to approach the Peace Corps because a colleague discovered that leaders from the Peace Corps were talking at the Kennedy School in 2012. I went and asked a question during the open forum about whether they thought the idea of doctors and nurses as educators through the Peace Corps would work.

They agreed that they thought there was a need for it. So I shoved my way to the front of the room and talked to them about it. For me, this reminds me of the importance of people being engaged in asking questions and also pressing for change. 

For more of GlobalPost's health coverage, check out our Special Report "AIDS: Turning Point."

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