Tribal Area Health Education Center will address tribal health care needs, train workforce

a person getting a nose swab

The new center will host programs that ensure children and youth are exposed to health care professions from an early age and feel empowered to pursue professions that directly impact their own communities.

Noelle Haro-Gomez/University of Arizona Health Sciences

A new regional health center, developed in part by the University of Arizona, will focus on growing Arizona's American Indian health system and its workforce.

The University of Arizona Health Sciences-based Arizona Area Health Education Center Program, also known as AzAHEC, will work with the Arizona Advisory Council on Indian Health Care to develop the new American Indian Health AHEC Regional Center. The center, dubbed AIH-AHEC, will be dedicated to developing health profession education initiatives and expanding access to health care for tribal communities in Arizona.

The new center will be the sixth AHEC Regional Center in Arizona. It is the first in the state and one of few in the U.S. outside of Alaska to focus exclusively on the American Indian health care system. 

The mission of the broader AzAHEC Program is "to enhance access to quality health care, particularly primary and preventive care, by improving the supply and distribution of health care professionals through academic community educational partnerships in rural and urban medical underserved areas."

American Indians have some of the highest rates of health disparities, poverty and poor health outcomes when compared with other ethnic and minority communities in the U.S., according to Indian Health Service. 

Leila Barraza

Leila Barraza

"Tribes in Arizona experience a serious shortage of health care professionals compared to other regions in the state," said Leila Barraza, director of the AzAHEC Program and associate professor of community, environment and policy in the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health. "The new American Indian Health Regional Center can begin to alleviate some of these shortages by working closely with our tribal health systems and enhancing their current workforce strategies." 

In collaboration with the San Carlos Apache Healthcare Corporation and Gila River Health Care, the new center will implement educational and training activities to improve the supply and distribution of health care professionals in tribal communities.

The center will help build a future health care workforce by providing community-based health professions rotations, assisting with continuing education, supporting health care staff and promoting health care careers for K-12 students.

"This center will host a myriad of programs that ensure children and youth are exposed to health care professions from an early age and feel empowered to pursue these professions, equipped with knowledge and cultural competencies critical to directly impact the health of their own communities," said Kim Russell, director of the Arizona Advisory Council on Indian Health Care. "It will be uniquely positioned to address disparities in concert with the five other AHEC Regional Centers in Arizona, the University of Arizona and the AzAHEC Program leaders and resources across all health professions."

It will also host an AHEC Scholars Program, which offers students community-based experiential training in rural or underserved settings.

Additionally, the center will conduct training and coach individuals to become health care providers serving in their home communities. The center partners plan to adopt "grow your own" strategies to address the shortage of health care professionals and reduce health disparities in Arizona's tribal communities.

Dan Derksen

Dan Derksen

"The AIH-AHEC Regional Center will be one of the first of its kind in the U.S. outside of Alaska, and align perfectly with the AHEC mission that has been an integral part of the University and Arizona communities for nearly 40 years," said Dr. Dan Derksen, associate vice president of health equity, outreach and interprofessional activities for UArizona Health Sciences, director of the Center for Rural Health in the UArizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, and the UAHS AzAHEC Program senior adviser and principal investigator.

The AIH-AHEC joins five existing AHEC Regional Centers in Arizona:

  • Central Arizona AHEC, housed in the Arizona Alliance for Community Health Centers in Phoenix that represents 23 community health center systems in 175 sites across the state, and serves as Arizona's Primary Care Association.
  • Colorado Plateau Center for Health Professions, housed in North Country HealthCare in Flagstaff, with Federally Qualified Health Center sites across northern Arizona's counties.
  • Eastern Arizona AHEC based in in Globe.
  • Southern Arizona AHEC, housed in El Rio Health with 14 Federally Qualified Health Center sites in Pima County.
  • Western Arizona AHEC, housed in the Regional Center for Border Health in Somerton. 

In fiscal year 2022, the AzAHEC Program, in collaboration with the existing five AHEC Regional Centers in Arizona and the nine Rural Health Professions Programs, provided 2,983 community-based experiential training rotations for 1,527 health professions students in Arizona. In fiscal year 2021, the AzAHEC Program provided 10% of the total rotations provided by all 56 AHEC programs in the nation. 

Congress authorized the federal AHEC Program in 1971. There are 56 AHEC Programs and 236 Regional Centers in 47 states.

A version of this article originally appeared on the UArizona Health Sciences website.