America’s health care system is being challenged to make changes that will achieve the Institute for Healthcare Improvement’s ambitious “Triple Aim Initiative” of better health, better care and lower costs. Area health education centers, or AHECs, based in widely diverse communities across the United States, respond to this challenge with services and programs that directly address the changing health care environment. The National AHEC Organization, the membership association of AHECs, and its network of AHEC programs and centers are nimble and effective, successfully recruiting, retaining and educating today’s and tomorrow’s health professions workforce.
Fifty-three medical school-based and two nursing school-based AHEC programs operate in 46 states, Guam and The Marshall Islands. Programs are AHECs located at academic health science centers and are referred to as program offices. An additional 240 community-based AHECs, each of which is affiliated with medical school AHECs, are referred to as centers. The reach of the AHEC program extends to nearly 2,700 of the nation’s 3,143 counties.
AHECs, with more than 40 years experience in building the country’s health care workforce, are arguably the nation’s best coordinated and distributed tool to reach rural, frontier and inner-city health providers. Linking local communities to health professions education, AHECs help ensure all Americans have access to health professionals and quality care.
Each AHEC develops, with an intensely local flavor, community-based health care workforce training with an emphasis on primary care, community-based training, teaching, recruiting and supporting a health professions workforce in underserved areas. Each AHEC works to foster a diverse health professions workforce that reflects the nation’s population as a means of preparing health professionals to expand practice and develop collaborative team models of care. What makes each AHEC unique is it’s responsiveness and provision of services that address key needs of the changing health care landscape in each community.
AHECs are instrumental in integrating public health and primary care, placing medical students in community-based primary care settings, coordinating clinical placements of nurses and health professions students in rural and underserved areas, increasing access to health care and insurance for those that need it most, increasing skills in team-based care and better care coordination through interprofessional education initiatives and focusing on health professions training that improves patient safety and clinical outcomes.
AHECs also have an excellent and long-lasting track record of recruiting, mentoring and training health professions students from underrepresented minority, rural and disadvantaged populations, and, by no coincidence, the people who work in AHECs are as diverse as the people they work with.
AHECs are a critical link between communities and a high-quality health care workforce for the future.
Given the crucial link AHECs have forged with their local communities and the role AHECs play in workforce development, it is vitally important state policymakers understand that a key and enduring strength of the National AHEC Organization and the AHEC network is their ability to creatively adapt national initiatives to help address local and regional health care issues, which ultimately impacts community health while providing a robust return on public investment.
The National AHEC Organization and the network of AHECs are critically aware, instinctively adaptable and creatively implementing programs and services that are helping hundreds of rural, frontier and urban underserved communities adapt to the changing health care environment. This strength is a valuable reminder of how well AHECs respond to the health education needs of health professionals, students and community members and how critically important it is to support AHECs at the local level.