November 3, 2012

Area Health Education Centers (AHECs) are statewide networks of community-based organizations linked to academic health centers to address health workforce needs. They aim to improve access to health care services in medically underserved areas. The National AHEC Program is a proven model for improving the health workforce pipeline.

The University of North Dakota School of Medicine had an AHEC grant in the mid-1970s. That grant was used to create four medical campuses that still operate in Bismarck, Fargo, Grand Forks, and Minot. The federal grant dollars ended in the early to mid-1980s, and the medical school then secured support from the state of North Dakota, along with tuition dollars and other sources to support medical education at the four campuses.

About four years ago, at the request of the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, the Center for Rural Health applied for and was awarded a new AHEC grant that is in use now, and has just received funding for an additional five years. These newer grants have a 1:1 match of state to federal funds, building a federal and state partnership to address the national problem of healthcare workforce supply. Since the University of North Dakota School of Medicine had an AHEC grant in the mid-1970s, North Dakota's has been classified as a first generation AHEC.

Today's North Dakota AHEC is much more comprehensive than the original AHEC. The first generation AHEC was critical in assisting the then-new four-year medical degree program at UND and in preparing and educating medical students. The current North Dakota AHEC is attempting to cover a broader spectrum of health education that includes addressing medical, nursing, dental, pharmacy, public health, and other disciplines and needs. The new AHEC is focused on collaborative relationships involving public and private partners working to establish a health education environment that is more comprehensive than medicine, and covering a student base that includes providing K-12 students with exposure to health careers; developing on-site experiences for college students in health tracts; incorporating the latest technology in health education; and using inter-professional educational experiences.

In addition to the program office located at the Center for Rural Health at UND, AHEC has two rural-based locations. The Eastern AHEC, located in Sanford Health at Mayville, serves 28 counties; and Western AHEC, located in Hettinger, serves 25 counties. The Mayville and Hettinger offices are both contracted with Mayville State University.

Since its inception in September of 2008, the new North Dakota AHEC has experienced a number of accomplishments. In order to meet the mission of increasing access to care and improving health workforce conditions, organizational infrastructure and multiple partnerships have been developed. Strategies to recruit underrepresented minority populations and/or disadvantaged rural backgrounds into health professions have been implemented. Strategies to address community-based training and education have been developed and implemented. ND AHEC has worked to prepare students through field placements, and has conducted and participated in interdisciplinary training in a wide range of disciplines. Continuing education has been provided, and ND AHEC is collaborating with the new UND/NDSU master's degree program in public health (MPH). In addition, strategies to address workforce needs have been developed and implemented.

While continuing current efforts, ND AHEC has strategic plans to address a number of new areas going forward. Future endeavors include the desire to participate in the Succeed 2020 initiative, an oil industry-sponsored initiative of $25 million that is working to provide North Dakota students (middle school through high school) with opportunities to become better prepared for college and health careers. AHECĀ  was able to purchase human patient simulators and is now developing a fee-for-service business plan to market this training effort to providers. The North Dakota Workforce Development Council and AHEC are partnering to plan a state health workforce summit for 2012 and 2014. AHEC will continue to work with the North Dakota Department of Commerce, Department of Health, Job Service, and Workforce Development Council on a statewide workforce planning grant focused on developing strategies to increase the recruitment of students into health professions, with an emphasis on rural and underserved.

AHEC is serving a critical need in North Dakota. We at Mayville State are proud to be a partner with AHEC helping to meet the needs of our state in the area of health care.