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CMSRU faculty impacting lives around the globe

Photo from a service trip.The physicians of Cooper University Hospital are renowned for the educational experiences they have provided to third and fourth year students from UMDNJ for the past 28 years. But one Cooper physician, and now an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University (CMSRU), has helped redefine hands-on learning by providing students, residents and physicians from throughout the United States with the opportunity to provide care to some of the world's poorest women and children.

James Aikins, Jr., MD, is a gynecologic oncologist at Cooper.  During a 2001 visit to his native Ghana, located in West Africa, he rejoiced with family members over the pending birth of a niece's child.  Shortly after returning from his trip, he learned that his young niece had died during childbirth, leaving her newborn baby motherless, her husband and parents heartbroken and grieving. This momentous personal event launched Dr. Aikins on a tireless mission to improve healthcare in his homeland – and in other needy places around the world – through the creation of International Healthcare Volunteers, a global health initiative that provides free healthcare to women and their families in underserved areas and provides continuing medical education to healthcare professionals based in these regions.

"Patients in developing countries are dying from what would be simple medical problems in the United States," explains Dr. Aikins. "Maternal deaths are just the tip of the iceberg. The lack of properly trained healthcare professionals, medications, screening technology, and challenging cultural and political systems have resulted in many patients getting inappropriate or too little care, usually too late."

When Dr. Aikins planned his first medical mission to Ghana in 2002, nine colleagues from Cooper University Hospital joined him. A group of physicians and nurses, they provided care to a few dozen patients in one location. Now, International Healthcare Volunteers plans one to two missions per year with close to 50 volunteers who work in five different hospitals. Volunteers include physicians, residents, medical students, nurses, technicians and college and high school students. In 2011, the group treated 850 patients and performed 93 major operations, including the nation's first laparoscopic gallbladder surgery.

Photo from a service trip.There is growing interest among healthcare providers in the field of global health. According to a 2007 article in Academic Medicine, the journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), about 25 percent of medical school graduates participated in global health experiences during medical school. Beyond medical school, there are countless opportunities for physicians to volunteer their services abroad in poor countries, frequently in the form of medical missions like those organized by International Healthcare Volunteers.

Students, residents and even more seasoned physicians who participate in international medical missions typically find the experience rewarding both personally and professionally, notes Dr. Aikins. "It is the purest form of learning. Medical professionals are able to hone their diagnostic and clinical skills in a very low-tech environment. I believe our volunteers return to the U.S. as better physicians."

Indeed, the AAMC notes that medical students with international clinical experience report a greater ability to recognize disease presentation, develop more comprehensive physical exam skills with less reliance on expensive imaging, and increase their cultural sensitivity. In addition, the exposure to this type of rewarding service may expand medical students' interest in specializing in primary care or public health, two areas where significant shortages of physicians are expected in the near future.

CMSRU welcomes its charter class in August 2012, and these medical students will be eligible to volunteer with International Healthcare Volunteers after their third year of training. Efforts are underway by Dr. Aikins to create a global health elective for students, similar to that provided to UMDNJ students in the past as well as establishing the global health section at CMSRU. 

About International Healthcare Volunteers

International Healthcare Volunteers is a not-for-profit organization that provides free healthcare to women in underserved areas and provides continuing medical education to healthcare professionals in these areas. The organization is composed of doctors and nurses, many of whom work at New Jersey hospitals. Funded entirely by donations, International Healthcare Volunteers is headed by James Aikins, Jr., MD, a gynecologic oncologist at Cooper and associate professor of OB/GYN at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University. For more information, visit