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Effort to provide quality health care in Arizona gets a big boost

Amanda Goodman

The college experience is about stretching beyond your comfort zone to learn from new and sometimes challenging situations, shattering preconceived notions in the process.

That is a central theme of the new Arizona Area Health Education Centers Scholars Program or ASP. The two-year interprofessional program includes community-based training in underserved settings across the state and more.

Students enrolled in the College of Nursing and Health Innovation Doctor of Nursing Practice program can apply to be a fellow in the scholars program.

“The primary aim is to provide interprofessional education and experience in core topic areas regarding social determinants of health and cultural competency while providing clinical and project-oriented experiences for students that counter population stereotypes," said Diane E. Nuñez, clinical associate professor in the College of Nursing and Health Innovation. "Students engage in practice transformation in emerging health issues to influence their perceptions of rural and urban underserved populations to inspire a future career in these areas.” 

The need is great. From geographical to financial, barriers to quality health care exist on a large scale across the state. As a result, people are suffering. 

Nuñez heads up a similar program that places interested students in rural areas for clinical rotations but it doesn’t have the structure, curriculum or interprofessional elements of the ASP.

Some of Nuñez’s past participants said it's one thing to learn about the hardships and lack of access to care in the classroom but it’s another thing to see it up close.

“I was able to witness firsthand the critical need for health care practitioners in these areas. It has certainly enriched my academic and clinical experience,” said ASU alumna Michele Javadpoor, who completed her rotation at a clinic near the Arizona-Mexico border.

Because students will have to travel and in some cases stay overnight in communities outside of metro Phoenix, financial support is key. Students get a stipend to cover their costs. Without it, many students would not be able to take part.  

The funding for ASP comes from a part of a recently awarded $2.5 million grant. ASU, along with the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University, receives a portion of those funds.

“This is an investment in our students and the people of Arizona and fits perfectly with our mission at the college, which is to work toward innovative solutions to improve the health and well-being of all our communities no matter where they are in the state,” said Judith Karshmer, dean of the College of Nursing and Health Innovation.

The scholars program is in addition to the college’s already demanding DNP coursework.

“We call it a value-added component to their program, so when possible, we try to tailor their existing academic requirements to be focused on vulnerable populations and communities,” Nuñez said.

The college’s current program has had some success in expanding minds and changing perceptions.

Past participant Jessica Sandler recounted her eye-opening experience while completing a primary-care rotation in Globe.

“The lack of health care access creates and sustains a vicious cycle that contributes to patients’ having multiple medical issues simultaneously. Because of this exposure I am even more determined as a future advanced-practice nurse to do what I can to improve the quality of life in the underserved populations,” Sandler said.

Exposure is a game-changer. The hope is that by adding ASP to the college’s efforts to deliver health care statewide, more students will get involved — and stay involved after graduation.

“If students don’t get these experiences in school, it is unlikely that they’ll take a job in these communities,” Nuñez said. “You give them the opportunity to go there and then they recognize the inherent strength and resilience of those communities.”  

For more information on ASP visit the resource website or email Nuñez at diane.nunez@asu.edu

About Arizona Area Health Education Centers

The AzAHEC project will develop and enhance health education and training networks within communities and academic institutions to increase diversity among health professionals, broaden the distribution of the health workforce, enhance health-care quality, and improve health-care delivery to Arizona’s rural and underserved areas and populations.

The award provides support to maintain, develop and enhance strategic partnerships through five regional centers covering all 15 Arizona counties, as well as 22 federally recognized Native American tribes. Now in its 24th year of model federal Area Health Education Centers funding (and sustained funding since its inception in 1984), the Arizona Area Health Education Centers program is a critical health professions workforce development program for Arizona’s rural and urban underserved communities, addressing all levels of health-care career development. With funds from the grant and the Arizona State Lottery, the program has been working to recruit and provide training for high school students and pre-health professions undergraduates, creating a health professions pipeline to help ensure health care for generations to come.  

The grant also provides field placements and clinical rotations for health professions students, particularly those enrolled in the Rural Health Professions Program at the UA, ASU and NAU, as well as health professions students from other public and private schools within Arizona and throughout the nation.

This funding also allowed the creation of the AHEC Scholars Program, a two-year interprofessional program comprising lectures and community-based training conducted in rural and/or underserved settings within each of the AzAHEC five regional centers. To become an AHEC Scholar, students from the UA, Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University must apply and be accepted into their participating college’s Rural Health Professions Program. A $2,000 stipend is provided for students participating as AHEC Scholar Fellows.

The funding also provides continuing education for currently practicing health professionals within the state. The five-year grant continues through August 2022 and includes a statewide outcome-focused evaluation plan.