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Healthcare nonprofit works to ‘seed’ next generation of doctors, nurses

11/15/16 - BOSTON, MA. - Scenes during the Women Who Empower event featuring Dr. Vanessa Kerry, H'15, co-founder and CEO of Seed Global Health, held in the Alumni Center at Northeastern University on Nov. 15, 2016. This event was part of Global Entrepreneurship Week. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The global community is facing a critical shortage of 7.2 million healthcare professionals, according to the World Health Organization, and the dearth of qualified doctors, nurses, and midwives is only expected to deepen in the coming years.

But these sobering stats didn’t stop Vanessa Kerry from harnessing her entrepreneurial spirit and healthcare acumen to co-found an innovative nonprofit aimed at solving the workforce shortfall. Called Seed Global Health, the nonprofit deploys U.S. health pro­fes­sionals to serve as edu­ca­tors in resource-​​limited coun­tries in an effort to build a pipeline of future in-​​country providers.

“We think this is the new face of diplomacy,” said Kerry, a critical-care physician at Massachusetts General Hospital who received an honorary doctorate of public service at Northeastern’s 2015 Commencement ceremony. “We are committed to raising the next generation of well-trained doctors and nurses who can be agents of change for their countries.”

Kerry shared her insight on the future of global healthcare with students, faculty, staff, alumni, and fellow healthcare professionals who filled the Alumni Center on Tuesday evening for the latest installment of the Women Who Empower Speaker Series. Her hourlong talk was part of the university’s ongoing celebration of Global Entrepreneurship Week, which will continue on Wednesday with an interactive panel discussion titled “Startup Mistakes You Don’t Want to Make.”

A score of students, faculty, staff, alumni, and healthcare professionals filled the Alumni Center for Kerry’s talk.

Kerry, for her part, helped Seed Global Health establish the Global Health Service Partnership, a public-private partnership with the Peace Corps, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, and the countries in which the program operates. Since 2013, GHSP has sent volunteers to Uganda, Malawi, and Tanzania, and trained more than 10,000 doctors, nurses, and midwives.

“The more healthcare workers you have [in a particular country], the higher the survival rate of the population,” Kerry said, citing the 2006 World Health Report. “The global burden of disease is worse in countries with critical shortages,” she added, noting that the vast majority of cases of HIV, maternal mortality, and non-communicable diseases are found in underserved regions like Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

In the Q&A, moderator Carmen Sceppa, professor and chair of the Department of Health Sciences, asked Kerry to name the primary ingredients for her career success. She pointed to her parents, Julia Thorne, who died in 2006, and Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who delivered Northeastern’s 2016 Commencement address.

“We are committed to raising the next generation of well-trained doctors and nurses who can be agents of change for their countries.”
—Vanessa Kerry, global healthcare revolutionary

Her mother, she said, who wrote a best-selling book on coping with depression, “taught me to believe in who I am and not worry about acceptance.” Her father, she noted, “told me to never turn my back on somebody in need and taught me to be a constant optimist.” Pointing to her father’s work to secure the Iran nuclear deal, she added, “He showed me that you can achieve things that are insurmountable.”

A student in the College of Engineering asked Kerry to explain technology’s role in Seed Global Health’s mission to educate the next generation of healthcare professionals. “Technology can be very powerful, but it’s only as good as the infrastructure that supports it,” Kerry explained, before turning the question on its head. “Technology is not the perfect answer,” she said. “The place where we’ve provided the most value has been in the hospital mentoring trainees.”

Rick Davis, vice president for alumni relations, asked the final question of the evening. He challenged Kerry to name a little known nonprofit that’s drawn her admiration for doing exceptional work for the world at large. She picked Global Citizen Year, an Oakland, California-based social enterprise that trains high school seniors to participate in an immersion-based international gap year before starting college. “I think the idea of service should be incorporated in to the fabric of everything we do in this country,” she said.