Organizers behind the initiative seek recruits to help inspire the next generation of health care and public health heroes to improve community health and equity

Second-year medical student Kritika Sharma spent the past semester volunteering at University Hospital in Newark to help women screen for breast cancer. She was part of a team of students at New Jersey Medical School at Rutgers Health providing cancer screening education and assistance in Newark and New Brunswick.

This combination of volunteerism and service learning, organized through a pilot program of the Rutgers Health Service Corps (RHSC), increased breast cancer screenings for uninsured or underinsured women ages 40 to 75 visiting the emergency department at University Hospital in Newark and Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick.

"Working in the Newark community allowed me to unveil the barriers our patients face in receiving care,” said Sharma, a Newark resident and first-generation student. “This opportunity not only granted me time but provided a unique lens to truly understand patients beyond the conventional physician-patient dynamic.”

RHSC, having completed its pilot phase and poised for launch, is a new program connecting students, faculty and staff with impactful service-learning opportunities across various health care and community settings.

It is recruiting its inaugural cohort of student members.

Participants undergo core curriculum training for public and population health service, followed by placement in service-learning projects aligned with their interests. Service activities may address critical health topics, including cancer screening, chronic disease management, substance abuse prevention, food insecurity, mental health promotion and emergency preparedness. Faculty and staff can engage in service as well as mentor or advise students.

Members, for instance, might assist with community health screenings aimed at alleviating the impact of diabetes and hypertension. They also may collaborate with local emergency agencies, participate in hands-on training and contribute to emergency response efforts – all with the overarching goal of fostering a safer and more resilient community.

As the program expands, service-learning opportunities for members will increase, with several new focus areas currently in development.

"Our Rutgers Health community has a desire to make a difference and engage people where they live, work, and play, to improve health and reduce disparities," said Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences Chancellor Brian Strom, who leads Rutgers Health.  “We seek to help people get and stay healthy, rather than only treating them when they get sick. This initiative also serves as part of Rutgers Health's commitment to making the university a leader in service learning.”

The ultimate goal is to create a national model for public universities, improving health and health equity in the state while increasing the number and diversity of Rutgers students pursuing careers in health professions, public health and social services.

An example of RHSC efforts is the Students for Cancer Awareness and Navigating Screenings (SCANS) team, who under the mentorship of the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School (NJMS) chair and chief of service of radiology, provides cancer screening education and assistance in Newark and New Brunswick.

Students, including Sharma, work emergency department shifts, identify women lacking up-to-date screenings through chart reviews and brief interviews, counsel them on the significance of mammography, facilitate scheduling for imaging tests, and offer support with navigation and transportation. The SCANS team partners with ScreenNJ, a statewide program whose focus is to implement and expand the reach of evidence-based cancer prevention and screening services.

RHSC is led by Humaira Chaudhry, chair and associate professor in the Department of Radiology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School; Vince Silenzio, a professor in the Department of Urban-Global Public Health at the Rutgers School of Public Health; John Hemphill, program manager at Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences; Alex Ruiz, executive director of Rutgers Environmental Health and Safety and the university safety officer; and Ethan Halm, professor in the Department of Medicine at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and the vice chancellor for population health.

Corps leaders said the program, rooted in interdisciplinary collaboration, harnesses students' desire to make a tangible difference in their community, improve health outcomes and reduce disparities. Participants will come from all Rutgers Health schools and Newark, New Brunswick and Camden campuses.

RHSC leaders said that during the COVID-19 pandemic, Rutgers students played a vital role in responding to the crisis, forming the Rutgers VAX Corps, led by leadership at the schools of pharmacy, nursing and health professions, and earning recognition with a “Beloved Community” award from Rutgers University President Jonathan Holloway.

Faculty, staff and students distributed self-testing kits, assembled personal protective equipment bundles for health care workers and administered thousands of COVID vaccines, and hundreds served as contact tracers in various local health departments across the state.

All students, faculty and staff are welcome to apply to RHSC. Members will be accepted based on interests and experience, the ability to think critically and work on interprofessional teams, and their desire to serve the community. Applications become available at the beginning of fall and spring semesters. Service hours may count as credits toward a student's degree, depending on their program and its requirements.