Erie Niagara AHEC: Connecting the Dots

From career counseling to community forums, agency is helping to strengthen health care in Western New York

By Jana Eisenberg

Globally and nationally, the news continues to be rife with stories about the dire shortage of people going into the healthcare field, both currently and predicted for the foreseeable future.

The problem is particularly alarming in areas that are already underserved, such as rural counties, and certain urban communities.

This shortage was identified as early as the 1970s, motivating Congress to create a program called Area Health Education Centers (AHEC).

At first directed specifically at a shortage of primary care physicians, the overall mission has broadened to include all levels and job types within the healthcare field.

And since the ‘70s, a network of AHECs — which in a nutshell work to connect students to careers, professionals to communities and communities to better health — has sprung up nationwide. They work individually and collectively to educate, expose and advocate for a stronger healthcare workforce as well as an understanding of what individuals and communities can to do improve their own health and healthcare.

The Erie Niagara Area Health Education Center was founded in 2003, as part of the New York State AHEC system. It serves urban, suburban and rural communities in Erie and Niagara counties, offering outreach and educational programs to high school and college students, as well as conducting training for working professionals and advocacy with the public, to diversify and strengthen the health workforce in the region.

“We especially need people from underrepresented communities to go into health professions,” said EN AHEC Executive Director Danise Wilson. “Our programs include mentoring high school students through the collegiate process, because students from underrepresented communities are more likely to drop out. We connect them to resources, and ultimately, encourage them to stay, treating and serving the communities where they’re from—one of our beliefs is that communities should ‘grow their own.’”

One way for EN AHEC to reach the kids is through high school guidance counselors. The organization also partners with UB to offer annual summer camps, where high school students can learn about public health topics and participate in conducting research to get an idea of what a public health career path entails.

Through an Emerging Health Scholars’ program, young students are provided with the opportunity to participate in college tours, prep classes and go on field trips to see professionals at work, for example at Roswell Park or SUNY Stonybrook.

With the college-aged population, the goals are slightly different, since not every local college student is from the area.

Community-based education becomes the methodology to connect with young people in health care majors, hoping to entice them to stay here after their education is completed. They are invited to tour community health centers, where they can do an internship, work a shift, or shadow a professional.

“There are plenty of jobs for health care professionals in our region,” said Wilson. “Especially in dental, primary care, pharmacy, social work and nursing — we’re working with those public health students to stay here when they graduate.”

EN AHEC also actively connects with those already working in the community, performing outreach and forums to teach professionals how to work better with communities in need, and also how to identify any biases in their own practice.

“We talk with professionals about how to recognize social determinants of health, and how to possibly work with their patients to address any barriers, such as housing, access to transportation and food,” said Wilson.

The organization has larger goals too, like helping individuals become more literate about their health, and more culturally competent.

“It’s a top down-bottom up approach,” added Wilson. “We go out into the community, teach people how to advocate for themselves and also to understand their own social determinants. Many feel isolated if they are struggling with housing or getting fresh food; they need to know that they are not the only ones. In high-need patient communities, we teach about preventive care, with the goal of having people spend less time in emergency rooms. We provide some community programs through places like churches and community centers.”

The multi-pronged belief is that, when there are enough providers, both here as home-grown professionals and those choosing to move here, and when all of those providers and the community are learning to communicate and recognize what the needs are, it will be a win-win-win-win.

How to Contact EN AHEC

To contact Erie Niagara Area Health Education Center about any of their programs, visit them on Facebook, at their website, erieniagaraahec.org, or call 716-835-9358.

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