New program addresses need for health care in rural, underserved communities

The scholars come from a range of backgrounds with various educational interests, including medicine, nursing, dentistry, pharmacology, social work and education.

There is a shortage of primary and specialty health care providers in Alabama. According to the Bureau of Health Workforce, Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), 66 out of 67 counties in the state lack enough dentists and mental health care providers to meet population needs.

In order to improve access to quality health care, 111 students from across the state will receive firsthand training on how to provide care in rural and/or underserved communities. The students, who are from various universities, have been selected to participate in the first class of Alabama Area Health Education Centers (AHEC) scholars.

The scholars come from a range of backgrounds with various educational interests, including medicine, nursing, dentistry, pharmacology, social work and education. The students will learn about rural medicine and how to serve underserved communities both in and out of the classroom through service projects.  

“The focus of the program is to take students who are pursuing careers in various health professions and make sure they receive a portion of their clinical training in rural and underserved areas,” said Michael Faircloth, M.D., the director of the Alabama Area Health Education Centers program and the medical and lab director of Student Health Services at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

“The goals of AHEC are to recruit, train and retain health professionals in rural and underserved communities,” said Cindy Selleck, Ph.D., a former professor and associate dean in the UAB School of Nursing and the former director of the Alabama AHEC program. “Many of the students are already interested in providing services to these populations so this program exposes them to various areas and teaches them how to succeed in their careers.”

Training, placing and keeping students with various backgrounds in underserved areas are key to ensuring adequate health care is provided to all people across the state.

“Many people think of doctors and nurses when they hear the term health professions, but a successful health care workforce needs more than doctors and nurses. It needs dentists, psychologists, pharmacists, social workers and technologists,” Faircloth explained.

Diversity is also a crucial piece of the puzzle when it comes to improving access to health care.

“We want to diversify and disseminate the health professions workforce,” Selleck said. “We recognize that we need our health professions workforce to look more like our population. We do not have enough minorities who are health professionals, and we are trying to improve that.”

AHECjoomlaFor Chelsea Greer, a native of Tuskegee and a graduate student in the Community Health Education program in the UAB School of Education, the AHEC scholars program is a perfect fit. It will teach her how to work with health care professionals with different areas of expertise.

“I think it is very important for health care professionals to collaborate to improve a community,” Greer said. “If we collaborate together, then we have a greater chance of improving the lives of others around the state. This program will connect me to a variety of other health professionals, and I hope to learn from them.”

Stephan Kieval, a UAB student enrolled in the dual Coordinated Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies and Master of Public Health program, worked in rural areas in Texas managing nature preserves where the nearest hospital was an hour away. He later became an EMT before deciding to return to school to earn his master’s degrees. The experience working in a rural area inspired him to apply to the AHEC scholars program.

“I learn by doing, so I am excited to be out in communities and experience this type of work,” Kieval said. “This will provide more options for experiential learning, and it will also expand critical thinking as we work to improve health care in rural areas of the state.”

The program lasts two years. Students will be working with leaders in the state’s five AHEC regions. To learn more, visit the AHEC scholars website