Physicians With Heart: A Tribute

Few endeavors in family medicine have managed to touch the lives of so many people in such far-flung corners of the world as has Physicians with Heart, or PWH. 

Physicians With Heart originally began as a part of Heart to Heart International. The concept for Heart to Heart originally began after discussions between Dr. Gary Morsch of Olathe, Kansas, and Dr. Dan Ostergaard of the AAFP, about the need to help the failing health care systems of the former Soviet republics following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The two men originally had met in 1990 by coincidence, and later, in May of 1991, they traveled together representing different organizations on a trip to the former Soviet republics. Following this trip, Dr. Morsch founded Heart to Heart International. Then, through Dr. Ostergaard’s encouragement, the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) became involved, and from this, the PWH project was born in 1993, with Heart to Heart, the AAFP, and the AAFP Foundation all playing major roles as founding partners in the organization. 

During the first few years, the group only handled the delivery of pharmaceutical products. The number of donations given was small, until the group received a large grant from the U.S. Department of State. This allowed PWH to expand into providing product updates, which consists of taking drugs into the receiving country and advising practicing doctors there on their use. A "family medicine symposium" (panel discussion with local physicians) has also been added, and has now evolved into two full days of product deliveries with family medicine symposiums being held in two large cities within the host country. 

Over several years, other special projects have also been added as a regular part of each trip's itinerary. One–a very special project dear to the hearts of all involved in PWH–concerns children. In 1998, during a visit to an orphanage in frozen Siberia, delegation members discovered that the children there had no winter apparel. A collection was taken up to purchase coats for them, and from this a children’s project has evolved. Through this project, as many as four orphanages and special needs schools within the country are identified and supplied with clothes, mattresses, bedding, shoes, toiletries and parties for the children. In addition, the ALSO (Advanced Life Support in Obstetrics) Project has been added, which teaches local obstetricians and nurse midwives non-surgical intervention procedures for emergency deliveries.

When it began, only 9 to 10 people traveled as part of the PWH annual trip. In 2005, when the group visited Tajikistan, 55 people went along, and a total of $8 million in donated U.S. pharmaceutical products and medical equipment was distributed. Physicians With Heart deployed its final airlift in 2011 to Kyrgyzstan.

In 2012, the AAFP Foundation launched Family Medicine Cares, a humanitarian program to address the health care needs of underserved populations, both domestically and internationally. Family Medicine Cares International provides patient care, delivers education and training in Family Medicine, and works to improve the health and quality of life of people in Haiti.

For more information on the history of Physicians With Heart, contact the Center for the History of Family Medicine.

Special thanks to:

Dr. and Mrs. Dan Ostergaard
Sandy Panther
Lindsay Young

Past Airlifts

*This, the only PWH project to take place outside of the former republics of the Soviet Union, was privately funded as a special project to help develop family medicine in Vietnam.

**Airlift took place in Oct. 2001, but due to tensions in the region following the September 11 attacks on the U.S., delegation went in Feb. 2002.

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