AHEC: South Carolina Area Health Education Consortium
Guest: Dr. David Garr – Family Medicine, MUSC
Host: Dr. Linda Austin – Psychiatry
Dr. Linda Austin: Dr. David Garr is Professor of Family Medicine. He’s Associate Dean in the College of Medicine and Executive Director of South Carolina AHEC. Dr. Garr, what does AHEC stand for?
Dr. David Garr: AHEC stands for the Area Health Education Consortium.
Dr. Linda Austin: What is the mission of AHEC?
Dr. David Garr: Well, the single sentence is connecting students to health careers, health professionals to communities, and communities to better health.
Dr. Linda Austin: Let’s take that one phrase at a time. Connecting students to health careers, what sorts of students are you looking for, or are you just trying to encourage all students to think about health careers?
Dr. David Garr: We work specifically with students in grades K through 12, trying to give them an opportunity to see a future for themselves in the healthcare field. South Carolina, as you probably know, is underrepresented in terms of minorities in the health workforce, so we have special programs that we’ve developed to try to increase the number of underrepresented minority students in healthcare. We know that students who pursue careers in healthcare from populations that haven’t had as many people in the healthcare workforce are more likely to go back and work in those communities in the future.
Dr. Linda Austin: So, you’re specifically looking for underrepresented minority students in South Carolina?
Dr. David Garr: We welcome other students, but we work primarily with those students in South Carolina who are underrepresented minority students.
Dr. Linda Austin: The second part of the mission that you mentioned is?
Dr. David Garr: Working with health profession students. We work in placing them in rural and underserved communities during their training, hoping that they’ll see a future for themselves in serving the underserved. As I think you’re aware, we have a lot of rural people in South Carolina that have difficulty getting access to care. So, our mission was to try to address those needs by getting healthcare out to those communities, and to place students, during their training, in those communities, hoping that they’ll see that this is a place they’d like to live someday, and work someday.
Dr. Linda Austin: And, the third part of the mission?
Dr. David Garr: Is working with health professionals out in communities in terms of continuing education. So, we provide educational programming, probably, in the range of 30,000 health professionals a year, throughout the state.
Dr. Linda Austin: Give some examples of some of the sorts of projects that AHEC undertakes.
Dr. David Garr: Well, I’ll start with our school-age students. We work with students with a program called Health Careers Academy. These are high school students who we’ve identified as being interested in healthcare, and we do something special for them throughout the school year. It’s on a voluntary basis for these students. We’ve organized that in each of our four AHEC regions in the state. We work with students, usually after hours; sometimes on weekends, where they receive enrichment experiences. They often have an opportunity to do some shadowing with health professionals. By seeing first-hand what a future in healthcare may look like may help them apply themselves even more in the classroom to achieve the goals they’ve set for themselves.
Dr. Linda Austin: Now, you mentioned there are four partners working together.
Dr. David Garr: We have four AHEC centers. Each center is responsible for a fourth of all the counties in the state. So, we have students that are involved in these programs in the high schools in those counties that we serve. And then we work with students from MUSC, from USC, and some of the other nursing schools in the state. Those are for the health profession students. But, for the school-age kids, we work with the counties in each of the regions that those students are going to school in.
Dr. Linda Austin: If a Caucasian student; a non-underserved minority student, wanted to avail themselves of some of these activities, is that possible?
Dr. David: Oh, sure. Yeah. We don’t exclude anyone. But, when we have programs that are geared to try to address some of the unmet needs, we encourage as many students from the underrepresented minority and population as much as possible to take advantage of our programs. We have a summer institute that we do as another example, where we bring together 100 or more students for a week on a college campus every summer. It’s kind of an immersion experience where they have a lot of exposure to a wide range of health professions. They also learn about interviewing, presenting themselves, in terms of their college applications; how to do that, and about the importance of the studies they’re engaged in at school, how critically important those are for them to be able to gain acceptance to college.
Dr. Linda Austin: Do you have any data on how successful the program is and whether these kids end up in med school, dental school, nursing school, PT school, etc.?
Dr. David Garr: We do our best to try to keep in touch with these young people, but it is a challenge. Once they graduate from high school, many of them scatter; go to other states for college. But, we’re doing our best to keep in touch with them. When we have them participate in our programs, we let them know that they’re part of our AHEC family and ask them not to forget about their nuclear families when they leave home to go off to school, and we don’t want to forget about us. With some of the technology we have now; email and Facebook, we’re trying to use some of that technology to keep in touch with these students so that we can celebrate their successes as they go forward and finish high school and move on to college and beyond. We’ve been very successful in having students choose a wide range of careers. We don’t limit it to those that are more prominent disciplines, like medicine and nursing. We want them to have exposure to a wide range of the options within healthcare.
Dr. Linda Austin: So, including, for example, radiation technology, or that sort of thing? Is that right?
Dr. David Garr: Laboratory medicine; physical therapy; occupational therapy; pharmacy; dentistry. We have programs during the summer as well for students who are specifically interested in nursing, dentistry, and medicine. And we’re hoping to add some other disciplines to that, where students spend a week on the MUSC campus working with faculty in those disciplines. Some of those students have been successful at gaining admission as a result of learning about what it takes to get in. They go back and finish up their college studies and have been successful with getting admitted.
Dr. Linda Austin: It sounds so rewarding. You mentioned, as your second goal, getting our trainees; I would imagine that means our students and residents, and so forth, out into the community. Tell us about some of those programs.
Dr. David Garr: We have precepting sites throughout the state. Medical students, as part of their third year of medical school, spend six weeks in rural communities throughout the state. We’ve also developed, as part of our interprofessional initiative, some sites where students from different disciplines work and learn in close proximity. So, we have an opportunity for them to get together and leave the offices of the specialists that they’re working with; in medicine, nursing, pharmacy, dentistry, whatever the field is. They work together on a project in that community to try to address some of the needs in that community. It gives them an opportunity to learn how to work together as a team on a project and to address the needs in a community, as well as gain some of the satisfaction that comes from really making a difference in terms of contributing to a community.
Dr. Linda Austin: Having worked in a rural community myself, I know how very different that can be, and how truly appreciated you can feel when you work out in a rural area.
Dr. David Garr: Yeah. I, too, was a small-town doc for a number of years, so it’s fun for me to have an opportunity to provide that experience for students while they’re in their training.
Dr. Linda Austin: Your third goal involves health professionals out in communities. Tell us about some of those programs.
Dr. David Garr: Well, once folks are out in communities; out in practice, they need to stay up on some of the developments, so we provide continuing education programs for a wide range of health professionals throughout the state. We work closely with our hospitals in South Carolina, and many of those hospitals are involved with the regional AHECs as part of a consortium. They give guidance to the AHEC centers about the types of educational programming that they’re employees might benefit from having. We organize those kinds of educational sessions so that people don’t have to leave the state to get that kind of continuing education. A lot of the licensing expectations are that people have a certain number of hours of education every year, or every three years, so they turn to AHEC in a lot of those communities to obtain that continuing education programming.
Dr. Linda Austin: Where does funding for AHEC come from?
Dr. David Garr: We get funding from the state. We get some funding from the federal government. And we’ve been successfully getting funding from some other foundations and federal grants that we’ve applied for. We’ve been very successful over the years, being one of the first AHECs established in the early 70s. We have a very good reputation. And I think people recognize that when they provide funding for some of our programs, it’s going to be money well-invested.
Dr. Linda Austin: Are there AHECs in other states? When you said one of the first, you mean in South Carolina, or that South Carolina was one of the first in the country?
Dr. David Garr: That’s right. In 1972, AHECs were established, and we were among the first 11 that were started in the whole country. There are now AHECs in 48 states.
Dr. Linda Austin: Dr. Garr, congratulations on your great work. It’s very exciting and, obviously, it really makes a difference in the lives of a lot of people.
Dr. David Garr: Thanks. It’s a lot of fun having this opportunity to contribute.