Power of Ideas: Vanessa Kerry

She’s changing how we provide healthcare to the world’s most vulnerable populations.

vanessa kerry

photograph by jeff brown

The Stats

According to estimates from the World Health Organization, there is a critical shortage of at least 2.4 million doctors, nurses, and midwives in 57 countries around the world. Meanwhile, the Association of American Medical Colleges found that on average, medical students who graduated in 2013 shouldered nearly $170,000 in debt. 

The Backstory

At age 14, while traveling through Vietnam with her father (current Secretary of State John Kerry), Vanessa witnessed appalling living conditions, poverty, and disease. Haunted by these images, she practiced medicine in Ghana after graduating from Harvard Medical School and completing her residency at Mass General. But working in international healthcare only increased Vanessa’s frustration with current global initiatives. “The question is, are we actually fixing the dam, are we rebuilding it, or are we truly being a part of the solution that’s going to be sustainable?” she asks.

The Idea

In 2010 Kerry began advocating for a national service corps of doctors and nurses. She penned an op-ed for the New York Times outlining her vision: Medical professionals would volunteer for yearlong stints as teachers in countries that desperately needed healthcare workers, providing critical training that could strengthen and build capacity at local clinics. In exchange for their service, a portion of their medical school loans would be repaid. On a whim, Kerry stood up at a Kennedy School Peace Corps forum in the fall of that year and asked for support. She got it, and within a year, the concept for SEED Global Health was sown.

The Program

Through its partnership with the Peace Corps, SEED sent 30 volunteers to 11 sites in Uganda, Malawi, and Tanzania and offset $700,000 in medical school loans last year. This summer, the program expanded to 40 volunteers and will cover $880,000 in repayment over the next year. Paul Farmer, cofounder and chief strategist for Partners in Health, calls SEED an “innovative public-private endeavor” that’s rooted in -Kerry’s “rare insight into the complex mechanisms of both global health delivery and international health policy. She’s a champion of the poor and sick around the globe.”