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weServe Program: "Service through Innovation"

The weServe Program at Drexel University was begun by Drexel's Biomedical Engineering students to find opportunities and support students who elect to complete Co-ops as volunteers in health facilities in the US and globally using their biomedical engineering skills and understanding of local needs. Through this student leadership, the program has now established relationships in The Gambia and Mozambique for any Drexel University student who wishes to participate in the weServe program. This program is designed with three key elements: Service, Leadership, and a sub-curriculum that expands the student's educational experience.

Mission Statement
To enable experiential learning for students through a firsthand understanding of healthcare needs and disparities at a local and global level, and to address such unmet needs by service through innovation.

Regional and International Service Experiences for Drexel University Students
weServe is a program initiated by students in Drexel University's School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems (BIOMED) that combines the institution's historic strength in experiential education with service learning in healthcare settings. Through this program, students gain firsthand exposure to various clinical environments, exercise creativity when confronted with real-world problems, identify unmet needs in these areas and apply their education to the immediate benefit of patients or communities.

Within the greater Philadelphia region, innovative partnerships are being developed to enable life saving solutions through service. Partnerships seek to serve underrepresented and underserved communities, and populations with special needs, such as the Inglis House and Foundation. Other local partners include Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Center, Ronald McDonald House, and Moss Rehabilitation Hospital.

More recently and through the initiative of students, Drexel launched the weServe Africa program – a collaboration between the Office of International Programs and BIOMED. Partnering with hospitals in regions of Africa that are politically stable, but face a shortage in biomedical engineers, doctors and other healthcare professionals, weServe Africa enables students to work alongside local technicians to install and restore biomedical equipment while promoting proper ongoing maintenance. Programs at two hospitals have been established thus far: Gambia's Sulayaman Junkung General Hospital and the Chicuque Rural Hospital in Mozambique.

With partnerships in place both in the Philadelphia region and in Africa, Drexel is now looking to institutionalize weServe by integrating it into the university's well-regarded Co-op program, tying it directly to the curriculum, and expanding it to other African institutions with an eye toward developing sustainable systemic change. To support weServe's institutionalization, BIOMED has appointed a project manager, Shirin Karsan, to oversee its growth and continuity. Funds are now needed to support: 1) curricular development, 2) outreach to potential public and private partners both in the United States and abroad, and 3) stipends for participating students.

Program Objectives
Beneficiaries of the weServe program include both students and the host institutions. For students, the program seeks to increase a sense of citizenship and offer students an opportunity to serve while gaining practical experience that challenges their creativity and improves their problem-solving skills. For host institutions, the program provides much needed support via technical assistance in the form of equipment repair and instructions on maintenance and creates a pipeline of ongoing and sustainable solutions that is welcomed by communities in need. Locally, this provides an opportunity for students to truly understand the community that they have chosen to be a part of during their academic experience, and take action to make it a better place for the future. Students serving abroad additionally benefit from working alongside professionals from other cultures while expanding their understanding of how various healthcare systems function.

More ambitiously, Drexel envisions forging relationships with African educational institutions, public-sector agencies, and private industries that support healthcare. For example, BIOMED faculty, staff and students recently met with representatives from Benin to discuss possible cooperation between the Benin Ministry of Health, the National University in Cotonou, and a private import enterprise primarily responsible for acquiring instrumentation for Benin's hospitals and clinics. Possible avenues of collaboration include the creation of joint online course offerings, student exchanges, and research projects focused on developing healthcare technologies that can function with minimal infrastructure.

Program Components
All parties involved are dedicated to ensuring that student experiences are safe, productive, and rewarding. While curricular development is an on-going process, two pre-service training programs have been established. To learn instrumentation trouble-shooting tactics and maintenance techniques, students work directly with BIOMED's Manager of Laboratories, who is responsible for the upkeep of BIOMED's significant teaching and research laboratory space. Students are also required to participate in a practicum in which they shadow a healthcare provider, identify a problem in that specific clinical environment, and present a solution designed to improve patient care.

Given the diverse needs of our local partners, student tasks might vary substantially from site to site. The three to six-month "weServe"Africa Co-op has more standard components based on our initial work with our partner organizations. Students perform the following:

  • Conduct a thorough assessment of the hospital's medical equipment inventory
  • Facilitate installation, restoration, and maintenance of equipment
  • Formulate standard operating procedures (SOP) for equipment
  • Train staff on the operation and maintenance of equipment
  • Create user and service manuals for staff to reference
  • Develop network of external technical assistance
  • Identify local needs that Drexel and weServe can accommodate
Efforts are underway to work with the Office of International Programs and the Steinbright Career Development Center to develop additional training that will help ensure that students have the academic preparations and cultural sensitivities necessary to successfully partake in this opportunity.

While we seek to institutionalize weServe by expanding it across the University and developing stronger curricular components, it is important to remember that this was launched as a student-lead initiative. Students are keen to explore these specialty areas as potential career paths. Further, the identified sites are in much need of assistance of the biomedical engineering department, and other areas of Drexel University, and would benefit substantially from students' multidisciplinary skill sets. Not only does weServe address Drexel's mission, but it also meets a student demand. As students expect expanded dining options or state-of-the-art recreation facilities, so do they require unique career-building experiences that occur outside of the classroom. Moreover, a significant number of students across divisions want to contribute to the social good not just as volunteers, but as active agents of social change. Student participants have reported that the work is challenging and sometimes emotionally taxing, particularly as they witness the sometimes dire conditions of rural healthcare in the developing world, but they see the experience as a critical component of their education. By easing some of the barriers to participation, we would certainly see an increase in demand from the student body and help to fulfill their expectations of what the Drexel Difference means in practice.

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