Regional Centers Improving Access to Health Care in Rural Areas
By Catherine Duncan
Since its inception by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), the South Texas Area Health Education Centers (ST-AHEC) Program has been tasked with improving local residents’ access to competent and quality primary health care by recruiting qualified health professionals to work in underserved areas.
While the School of Nursing has participated in this venture for years, the school as of Jan. 22, 2018, is now leading the efforts of the ST-AHEC and its renewed and refined mission that is determined by federal funding from HRSA, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The HRSA funding—a five-year, $500,000 per year commitment with matching state money—allows the ST-AHEC to use a multi-pronged, multi-partner approach to increase diversity and distribution of the health care workforce.
Janna Lesser, Ph.D., RN, professor and director of the Center for Community-Based Health Promotion with Women and Children, said the nursing school’s work with ST-AHEC aligns well with its dedication to affecting change by understanding social determinants of health, which are the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age.
“There are many people living in our rural and other medically underserved areas who have no access to health care,” Dr. Lesser said. “Under the direction of our Vice President for Research Andrea Giuffrida, Ph.D., we developed a project that seeks to both gather community residents concerns about health and the social determinants of health that they believe are impacting the health of their communities.”
Dr. Lesser said the major emphasis of the ST-AHEC Program now is on contributing to the growing interest in developing interprofessional team collaborative care in rural areas.
“We are creating the ST-AHEC Scholars Program that includes both an online didactic program and community-based practicum experiences for students so they can experience providing services in medically underserved communities. HRSA believes interprofessional collaborative practices have the potential to transform health care.”
HRSA is supporting these programs with the goal of encouraging health care providers to practice in these rural and other medically undeserved areas once they have finished their education, she said.
“AHEC Scholars will represent all types of health care students throughout our region’s 35 counties. This will enable us to recruit students who represent the populations living in these areas. This will, we hope, result in more diversity and greater distribution within the future workforce,” Dr. Lesser said.
The ST-AHEC Program and its directors are: Lower Rio Grande Valley AHEC, Armando Lopez; Mid Rio Grande Border AHEC, Julie Bazan; South Central AHEC, Paula Winkler; South Coastal AHEC, Belinda Flores; and Southwest Border AHEC, Rose Martinez.
Winkler, whose center is in San Antonio, said nursing is a huge component of how health care services are delivered. “Nursing students have the ability to provide clinical care, but they also provide outreach opportunities, health screenings, health education, counseling, immunizations, and mental health information.”
Winkler said the South Central AHEC has always worked with the School of Nursing to meet its program goals. “We are able to help create opportunities for students and faculty to work in these communities. Nurse researchers from the School of Nursing are partnering with the ST-AHEC to conduct community-engaged research that aims to determine how to better serve the rural areas. The lessons learned in our AHECs can be used to improve population health overall. That is truly our mission.”