This month the University of Alaska Anchorage’s School of Nursing became the first Area Health Education Center (AHEC) Program in the nation housed in a nursing school instead of a medical school.
AHECs create formal relationships between universities and geographically distinct community partners to strengthen the health workforce in underserved communities. They achieve this over-arching goal via three stages of the training continuum:
1) encouraging youth in underserved areas to go to college and pursue a health career;
2) encouraging health professions students to work in underserved areas; and
3) supporting continuing education opportunities for health professionals working in underserved areas.
In the rest of the U.S., AHECs are housed in schools of medicine. Because no one else had ever exercised the often-forgotten amendment supporting AHECs in nursing schools, it took nearly a year for Alaska to confirm its eligibility to compete.
In this three year cooperative agreement, the UAA School of Nursing will initially contract with the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation (serving YK Delta region) and Fairbanks Memorial Hospital (serving Fairbanks and the Interior) to create AHEC Centers within their organizations. Next year, the Alaska Family Practice Residency will be added to serve Anchorage and the Mat-Su Borough. In the next three year cycle, 2-3 additional AHEC Centers would be created to serve remaining sections of Alaska.
Alaska’s rural and other underserved areas struggle with a health workforce crisis. 18% of jobs created in Alaska over the past decade are in health care – higher than the Lower 48. The entire state of Alaska is designated a Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA) or Medically Underserved Area (MUA).
Last year, the State of Alaska funded UAA to look at recruitment costs for 13 distinct provider types in rural health facilities (physicians, pharmacists, midlevel providers, nurses, dentists, hygienists, psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, masters-level therapists, and LCSWs). Facilities examined included 330 clinics, hospitals, mental health centers – tribal and non-tribal. The data are staggering:
· $38,000/new hire, including training and locums/travelers
· Rural Alaska spent $12M last year in recruitment costs, over 40% in locums/travelers
· Regional tribal orgs invested an average of $70K per hire
AHEC is one example of infrastructure resources that have previously been inaccessible to Alaska. It is hoped that the AHEC can be leveraged with other innovative strategies to address our dire health workforce shortage.
AHEC programs are funded out of HRSA’s Bureau of Health Professions (link is: http://bhpr.hrsa.gov/ahec/)