The teenager, growing up in rural Alabama, who sees the need for more health care in their hometown and wants to help.

AHEC StateMapA map of Alabama AHEC's regional coverage areas.

The college student, studying and working all day and dreaming of medical school.

The nurses, advanced practice practitioners and physicians who could use more resources to grow the practice and help their patients.

The communities around the state who need health care workers to fill a void, to make longer, healthier lives possible.

All of them benefit from the Alabama Statewide Area Health Education Centers, or Alabama AHEC, a statewide organization dedicated to recruiting, training and retaining Alabama health care professionals while also increasing diversity among health professionals and improving health care coverage and delivery in rural and underserved areas.

Based out of UAB’s Department of Family and Community Medicine and with five regional centers covering all areas of the state, Alabama AHEC is partially funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), which renewed the organization’s grant this summer, totaling around $1.4 million in annual funding. This month, Alabama AHEC, in partnership with Connection Health, also received a notice of award the HRSA Community Health Worker Training grant, which will award $2,999,905 to support community health workers. 

The grant renewal and additional grant funding, Alabama AHEC Associate Director Becky Reamey said, validated the AHEC team’s efforts around the state and will spur the organization onward.

“This funding enables us to do meaningful and much-needed work around the state,” Reamey said. “Our entire team is excited to continue and grow our efforts to meet Alabamians’ health care needs.”

Among the organization’s programs is the AHEC Scholars program, a longitudinal, interprofessional education program that provides free didactic and community-based training for more than 400 students, including medical, nursing, dental, pharmacy, social work, public health and nutrition students. The program includes about 40 total hours of curriculum and aims to connect students across health professions, building their skills and encouraging them to serve in medically underserved communities.

In 2020 and 2021, the Alabama AHEC Scholars were also active participants in the organization’s efforts to fight COVID-19, including testing and vaccination clinics and education. Through this program they received additional training in mental health first aid.

Maria-Camila Ochoa, a University of South Alabama medical student and AHEC Scholars alumna, said the program gave her “the tools and experiences to best serve rural and underrepresented communities as a physician.”

“I pursued a career in medicine to serve those who are underrepresented in our health system, and the AHEC Scholars program has provided me with the funds, support and information to better accomplish this goal,” Ochoa said.

Alabama AHEC also offers pipeline programming for high school and college students. In 2021, 12,460 students participated in those programs, which help recruit students into health care careers and support them in pursuing post-secondary education. Among others, these programs include the Health Professions Academy hosted by West Central Alabama AHEC; Camp LEAP, a five-day summer enrichment program; Career and Professional Enrichment (CAPE) and Health Career 101 for high school students; as well as Discovery MedCamp, held on the campus of Auburn University this summer.

Students also benefit from a Community-Based Educational Training program that pairs them with health care providers for clinical rotations, focused on underserved areas or areas experiencing health care shortages.

In addition to serving students and aspiring health care professionals, Alabama AHEC also manages numerous community outreach programs. North Alabama AHEC, for example, runs an HIV screening program that conducted more than 200 screenings even during the COVID-19 pandemic. The regional center also runs a Youth Service Zone, which pairs young volunteers with community projects to encourage lifelong service.

A group of AHEC Scholars and volunteers at a COVID-19 testing and vaccination event. (photos provided by the Southern Alabama AHEC)A group of AHEC Scholars and volunteers at a COVID-19 testing and vaccination event. (photos provided by the Southern Alabama AHEC)

East Central Alabama AHEC runs Remote Area Medical (RAM) clinics, which saw more than 612 patients in 612, with services provided by 450 volunteers. South East Alabama AHEC runs a health literacy program, teaching citizens strategies for communicating with their health care providers, and a Health Disparities program that helped bring COVID-19 testing to community events, daycares, schools, shelters, churches, employers and county jails, among other locations.

West Central Alabama AHEC also has a large program focused on opioid abuse, the Rural Communities Opioid Response Program. Focused on six Alabama counties, that program provided education and training for community members, built an early intervention and treatment toolkit for health care professionals and supports a community recovery program. The program also increased access to naloxone in rural service areas to help prevent fatal overdoses, and established a drug takeback program to safely dispose of unused medications.

Each of these programs supports AHEC’s overall mission of building up Alabama’s health care workforce and providing care to the communities that need it most. With this year’s grant renewal, the organization will be able to continue and grow that mission, helping the state meet new challenges and plan for a healthier future.