Ron Sparks was well aware of the vital importance of having local health care available in recruiting and keeping economic development and healthy growth when he was named director of the former Alabama Rural Development Office. One of his first actions was to meet with 20 prominent Alabama rural health stakeholders to identify what this new office could do to improve rural health care.
There was unanimous agreement that the single greatest rural health need was to establish an Area Health Education Center (AHEC) program. Alabama was one of only a few states that did not have this valuable program that seeks to improve the supply, distribution, retention and quality of primary care and other health practitioners in medically underserved (especially rural) areas.
With great assistance from officials at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, Alabama was awarded a federal AHEC grant and has established a statewide AHEC program. The central office is in Birmingham with regional offices in Brewton, Demopolis, Gadsden, Huntsville and Montgomery.
According to the National AHECF Organization, most state AHECs provide the following services:
Health Careers Recruitment and Preparation: AHECs attempt to expand the health care workforce, including maximizing diversity and facilitating distribution, especially in underserved communities. AHECs offer health career camps, science enrichment programs, healthy lifestyle education programs, health careers curricula and programs for elementary, middle school, and high school students. These programs introduce students to a wide assortment of health career possibilities, guide them in goal setting and educational planning, and offer science courses to strengthen critical thinking skills.
Health Professions Training: AHECs provide community placements, service learning opportunities and clinical experiences for medical, dental, physician assistant, nursing, pharmacy and allied health students and residents in rural and urban underserved communities. Through interaction with patients in federally qualified health centers, county health departments, free health care clinics, and local practitioner’s offices, students and residents can observe the economic and cultural barriers to care and the needs of underserved and ethnically diverse populations in a primary care environment.
Health Professionals Support: AHECs provide accredited continuing education offerings and professional support for health care professionals, especially those practicing in underserved areas.
Health and Community Development: AHECs evaluate the health needs of their regions and provide responses to those needs. AHECs develop community health education and health provider training programs in areas with diverse and underserved populations.
Alabama’s young AHEC program has not matured to the point of being able to offer all of these valuable services yet. Funding also poses a challenge because the federal grant for establishing and maintaining an AHEC program must be matched with local funds. Encourage your local school counselors to fully utilize AHEC services. Encourage church, civic, and other groups to contact their regional AHEC about hosting a presentation on this valuable rural health program.
More information: uab.edu/medicine/ahec.
Dale Quinney is the founder of Operation Save Rural Alabama, www.osral.net, and a past director of the Alabama Rural Health Association.