Philadelphia University + Thomas Jefferson University

Rwanda Health &
Healing Project

Directed by DFCM faculty Drs. Ellen and James Plumb, the Rwanda Health & Healing Project (RHHP) has provided students with a unique, interdisciplinary, community-focused global health immersion experience. With its focus on developing team-based, sustainable programming around public health, economic development, and community empowerment, the project provides the opportunity for students to become involved in an experience that is longitudinal in scope and practice. Individual student experiences become part of the collective organizational experience and its relationship to the partnering Rwandan villages.

The RVCP-Jeff HEALTH exchange provides the opportunity to expose students from the United States and Rwanda to the practice of healthcare across health systems, institutions, and cultures. Most importantly, this bi-directional model of global health education has the potential to build local and international global health capacity in a way that is fundamentally more equitable, inter-professional, and relevant to the future practice of global health. Future plans for the RHHP project include the following:

(a) continuing to seek opportunities for sustaiability,

(b) ensuring interdisciplinary students are prepared for the challenges of global work,

(c) integrat¬ing global health competencies into local and regional projects involving diverse communities such as immigrants and refugees,

(d) involving more faculty in developing faculty enrichment and capacity building activities,

(e) consolidating more clinically focused rotation opportunities

In 2005, the DFCM and CUH were invited to partner with one such organization, Barefoot Artists, on the Rwanda Healing Project in Rugerero, a village in Northwest Rwanda, near the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  

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Barefoot Artists is a community-based organization that “works with poor communities around the globe to help people heal and thrive through self-expression and action.” With the goal of integrating basic public health practice into Barefoot Artist’s holistic philosophy of healing and community building, the first team of TJU medical and nursing students and faculty traveled to Rwanda in 2006 in order to explore the feasibility of student-driven health projects in Rugerero. Through concentrated community building, resource mapping, and partnership building with established organizations in Rwanda, the SKMC student organization Jeff HEALTH built the foundation for what has become the student-run, interdisciplinary, public health–oriented Rwanda Health and Healing Project (RHHP). 

Over the past nine years, the RHHP has expanded into a second village, Akarambi, and has implemented longitudinal, interdisciplinary programming in health and hygiene, nutrition, village gardens, helminthic prevention, HIV/AIDS education and support groups, and family planning. Most educational activities have been implemented with the assistance of local health committees and the use of a train-the-trainer model to empower and train community members and ensure program sustainability. Additionally, with initial Jeff HEALTH funding, several income-generating projects have been started, including rabbit and pig rearing, mushroom farming, and beekeeping. Jeff HEALTH also provide Akarambi with funds to complete an electrification project

The RHHP also formed partnerships with two nonprofit organizations, the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of Engineers Without Borders and the Thirst Relief International, to rebuild latrines and improve access to potable drinking water in Rugerero. Finally, through partnership with a Rwandan medical student organization, the Rwanda Village Concept Project (RVCP);  RHHP has worked with the University of Rwanda College of Medicine and Health Sciences to develop an exchange program for Rwandan medical and pharmacy students.

To date, Jefferson has hosted 24 Rwandan medical students as part of a 2-month clinical experience during which students attend public health courses, complete observatory clinical rotations, work in the Clinical Skills Center, and participate in community outreach activities. Directed by an interdisciplinary group of resident and faculty global health clinical mentors across the Departments of Pediatrics, Family and Community Medicine, Emergency Medicine, and Obstetrics and Gynecology, the current curriculum is designed to introduce the students to the many dimensions of clinical and public health practice, health systems, and health professions education in the United States.

Since 2011, RHHP has become an important global health experience for Jefferson medical students participating in the recently developed College Within a College program (CWiC), a 4-year interprofessional primary care co-curricular elective program in population and community health. Through involvement in CWiC, students traveling to Rwanda participate in formal didactic training in public health prior to travel and are required to use the problem-solving paradigm in public health to rigorously consider, evaluate, and report on their global health immersion experience in Rwanda. Although RHHP has continued to be a grassroots, student-driven project, the inclusion of the project experience as part of a formal educational curriculum in medicine and public health has strengthened the education and professional value of the immersion experience for participating students.

The central mission of the RHHP is rooted in continuity and sustainability with the goal of community independence, with continuous monitoring of existing projects and community empowerment. Through an international travel fellowship program at TJU, students can apply for funding for international travel (to date, 59 students have been granted more than $63,000 in funding for travel to Rwanda). In its second year, Jeff HEALTH received 501c status for fund-raising purposes and has been the recipient of more than $30,000 in local and national grant funding.

Although Jeff HEALTH members typically only spend 1 to 2 months in Rwanda during the summer, the organization continuously monitors existing projects through its partnership with the RVCP and its participating Rwandan medical students. RVCP members selected for the Jeff HEALTH exchange program perform monthly visits and assessments of village health and income-generating projects. The continual monitoring of projects by local representatives who help villagers problem solve, address challenges, and recognize opportunities for improvement has been invaluable to the continuity and sustainability of Jeff HEALTH projects and the organizational relationship with the participating villages.

To date, 85 students from the fields of medicine, public health, nursing, pharmacy, occupational therapy, and physical therapy have traveled to Rwanda as part of Jeff HEALTH and RHHP. As the RHHP experience becomes more integrated with a formalized global health curriculum at TJU, there is an increasing emphasis on supporting scholarly activ¬ity among returning students. As a result, more students are designing, implementing, and presenting institutional review board–approved research projects related to their work in Rwanda. Multiple publications and national presentations have resulted from the RHHP program.

Starting in 2011, faculty from the DFCM began developing a clinical program in Rwanda for advanced medical students, residents, and faculty from TJU. Focusing on the principles of reciprocal education, this program is built on the RVCP-Jeff HEALTH peer mentorship networks. Through these networks, members of the TJU community have the opportunity to expand beyond the village-based public health programs and work with the exchange RVCP graduates at different institutions within the Rwandan health sector, thereby providing a more comprehensive and collaborative global health education experience. To date, four TJU faculty, two family medicine residents, and two OB/GYN residents have travelled to Rwanda for educational and clinical capacity building.