Growing their own: sowing interest in health careers

High school students participate in a simulated medical case at YES MED camp, a partnership between Central Iowa AHEC and Des Moines University.

In the same way orchard owners plant trees with a long-term view of the fruits of their labors, some organizations are working to plant interest in health care careers among young students.

They include the nation’s Area Health Education Centers, or AHECs, a federally funded program created in 1972 to recruit, train and retain health professionals committed to the underserved. DMU and the University of Iowa partnered in 2007 to bring AHEC to Iowa, which was one of the last four states without such a program.

The Iowa AHEC Program provides statewide coverage via five regional centers with programs ranging from health care career exploration activities for elementary through undergraduate students to clinical training offerings for health professions students to continuing education opportunities for practicing professionals.

“Building this comprehensive workforce pipeline both increases the number of Iowa’s health care professionals and improves access to quality care in underserved areas through community/academic partnerships,” says Wendy Gray, M.H.A.’97, Iowa AHEC Program

“I tell students, ‘You won’t get into a bigger heartfelt practice than in rural medicine.’ They are the most affectionate and appreciative patient population I have ever had the privilege of providing medical care.”

Students in DMU’s Rural Medicine Educational Pathway program, as well as nursing and nurse practitioner students at the University of Iowa, work with AHEC staff to gain clinical training experiences.

“The heart and soul of AHEC is to recruit those students with a high propensity to serve in a rural area and to make sure they have the resources and knowledge to do so,” Gray says. “We also want to show off our rural communities in ways to attract the students back.”

In nurturing tomorrow’s rural health care professionals, it makes sense to begin with rural youth. As a dual-degree and RMEP student at DMU, Eric Neverman explored studies showing that health care providers with rural backgrounds are more likely to locate in rural areas than those from urban areas. In addition, preparing them medically and socially for practice in a rural area is critical to retaining them.

The Jessup, IA, native is open to all aspects of rural medicine when he joins Grundy County Memorial Hospital after his residency.

“I think my rural track experiences have fostered an appreciation for and desire to be involved with medical education once I am in practice back in Iowa,” Neverman says.

He might get that chance via the Cedar Valley West Association for Education and Economic Development, a creative partnership among four school districts in Grundy and Butler counties in Iowa that connects students to local career opportunities and promotes the region’s lifestyle. Grundy County Memorial Hospital (GCMH), one of the area’s largest employers, is among the association’s business partners that take on high school students for job-shadowing and internships in roles ranging from physician and nurse to finance manager, public relations staff, dietitian and facilities maintenance staff.

“The heart and soul of AHEC is to recruit those students with a high propensity to serve in a rural area and to make sure they have the resources and knowledge to do so.”

“We recognize the need to expose young people to health care careers early on. We need to grow our own,” says Jennifer Havens, GCMH chief clinical officer and a student in DMU’s master of health care administration program. “You get them excited about working in the area and in health care, and then they’re more likely to come back.”

Students, school administrators and local businesses have embraced the program, says Cedar Valley West’s coordinator and lone staff member, Sherri Walker.

“Among participating students, 96.6 percent have said their job shadowing experience increased their awareness of job opportunities in their community,” says Walker, who surveys students as well as the businesses that host them. “This helps them understand the connections between education and employment, so they can avoid wasting time in college and we can provide the employees that our businesses will need in the future.”

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