Filling the Need for Health Professionals

Spring 2024
A photograph of a mom walking out of her house holding a baby. She is being met by two health professionals wearing stethoscopes and blue scrubs.

Arizona Area Health Education Centers Program

Access to health care is a right, not a privilege, yet millions of Americans can’t obtain health care services that prevent, diagnose and treat diseases and that address the social determinants that impact health.

Almost 100 million Americans live in a designated Primary Care Health Professional Shortage Area, defined by the federal Health Resources and Services Administration as areas and populations with a shortage of primary care physicians relative to the population. In Arizona, more than 3.3 million people live in Health Professional Shortage Areas.

Since 1984, the Arizona Area Health Education Centers (AzAHEC) Program has served the state through health professions workforce training, recruitment and retention in rural and medically underserved communities.

Enhancing Access to Quality Health Care

Each year, future physicians, nurses, pharmacists, dentists, phlebotomists, physician assistants, physical therapists, public health professionals and more participate in community-based experiential training thanks to AzAHEC. From July 2021 to June 2022, nearly 1,500 students and residents representing close to 40 universities and residency programs participated in more than 3,000 field experiences in Arizona, with 75% indicating that the rotation increased their likelihood of practicing in a rural or medically underserved area.

“My rural medical experiences have been vital in preparing me to be a competent full-spectrum family medicine physician,” says Amanda McKeith, MD, a resident in the UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson’s Department of Family and Community Medicine. “When your community has limited access to resources and specialists, patients depend on family medicine doctors to provide them with the care they need. My rural rotations ensure I develop these necessary skills. Where else can you learn to deliver a baby, perform a post-partum tubal [ligation], admit a patient to the ICU and perform a shoulder reduction — all in one day?”

Six AzAHEC Regional Centers enhance access to quality health care, particularly primary and preventive care, by improving the supply and distribution of health care professionals through academic-community educational partnerships in rural and urban medically underserved areas as part of the Federal Area Health Education Program.

A History of Developing a Diverse Health Care Workforce

It has been nearly 80 years since the conclusion of World War II on Sept. 2, 1945, yet the war’s legacy lives on, particularly in the field of health care. The scale and intensity of the war catalyzed medical innovation, while postwar conditions stimulated the expansion of employer-based health insurance.

The explosive population growth seen during the baby boom from 1946 to 1964 added 76 million people to the U.S. population. Congress, concerned there would not be enough health professionals to care for the growing population, authorized the Area Health Education Centers program in 1971 to recruit, train and retain a workforce of health professionals committed to rural, underserved populations.

Fifty years later, the need continues. There are now 56 AHEC programs and 235 regional centers in the U.S., including six in Arizona. In the last fiscal year, the AzAHEC Program and the AzAHEC Regional Centers provided 12% of the community-based health profession training rotations reported by the national AHEC programs.

“Interprofessional, community-based experiential training rotations are vital to improving access to health care for all Arizona residents, especially those living in rural and urban underserved areas,” says Daniel Derksen, MD, senior adviser and principal investigator of the AzAHEC Program and UArizona Health Sciences associate vice president for health equity, outreach and interprofessional activities.

“The first Arizona AHEC Regional Center opened in Nogales in 1984,” he continues. “By 1989, we were serving all 15 Arizona counties through five regional centers. [In 2022], we expanded to six with the addition of the American Indian Health AHEC Regional Center."

Training Providers for Culturally Appropriate Health Care 

The American Indian Health AHEC Regional Center, a collaboration with the San Carlos Apache Healthcare Corporation and Gila River Health Care, is implementing education and training to improve the supply and distribution of health care professionals in tribal communities. It works with many of the 22 federally recognized tribes in Arizona.

“Tribes in Arizona experience a serious shortage of health care professionals compared to other regions in the state,” says Leila Barraza, JD, MPH, director of the AzAHEC Program and associate professor of community, environment and policy in the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health.

On July 1, 2022, the American Indian Health AHEC Regional Center joined five existing AHEC regional centers in Arizona: the Central Arizona AHEC, the Colorado Plateau Center for Health Professions, the Southern Arizona AHEC, the Center for Excellence in Rural Education and the Western Arizona AHEC.

Each year, the AzAHEC Program and Regional Centers partner with the nine Rural Health Professions Programs based in Arizona’s three public universities – UArizona, Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University – as well as professional organizations and communities to provide a variety of training and educational events.

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