New WMU center promoting diversity in primary health care workforce

Contact: Mark Schwerin
Western Regional Area Health Education Center logo.

The new center is located at WMU's downtown Grand Rapids regional location.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.—A recently created center is taking aim at promoting diversity in primary health care providers, particularly in underserved communities.

The Western Regional Area Health Education Center, located in Western Michigan University's downtown Grand Rapids regional location, is partnering with numerous providers across Southwest Michigan to play an integral role in teaching and training the next generation of health professionals. The center is operated through WMU’s College of Health and Human Services in Kalamazoo.

About the program

The Area Health Education Center program was developed by the U.S. Congress in 1971 to recruit, train and retain a healthcare workforce committed to underserved populations. WMU's Western Regional Center was created in 2013 through an agreement with Wayne State University, which originally received funding from the Health Resources Services Administration to bring the Area Health Education Center program to Michigan.

One of five regional centers operating across Michigan, the Western Regional Center serves 19 counties, including Mason, Lake, Oceana, Newaygo, Muskegon, Ottawa, Kent, Allegan, Barry, Van Buren, Kalamazoo, Calhoun, Jackson, Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph, Branch, Hillsdale and Lenawee counties.

"The mission is to increase the size and diversity of the primary care workforce in medically underserved and health-care-provider shortage areas," says Lisa Brennan, executive director of the Western Regional Center.

That workforce includes everything from traditional family practice medical doctors to occupational therapists, obstetricians and gynecologists, physical therapists, speech pathologists and audiologists, psychologists, social workers and more, Brennan says.

"When they say, 'to increase the size and diversity of the primary care workforce,' they're not just looking at doctors and nurses," Brennan notes. "We really want to diversify the pool of candidates. So we're looking at the underrepresented, disadvantaged minority students and getting them into health care training programs to become our next OTs and PTs and speech pathologists and social workers."

The Western Regional Center is funded through a combination of grants from the Health Resources Services Administration, the WMU College of Health and Human Services and other sources. Those grants have totaled $819,000 since its inception. In addition to Brennan, the office is staffed by Melissa Ponstein, program manager, and Olivia Lanctot, program assistant.

Three Pillars

AHEC is underpinned by three pillars:

  • Recruitment—The center works extensively with middle school and high school students to try to expose them to careers that would land them in postsecondary training programs in health fields. Efforts are not limited to traditional students, however, and are also aimed at displaced workers, veterans and others looking for a new career.
  • Placement—The center works closely with community partners to place postsecondary and graduate students in medically underserved and health-care- provider shortage areas for their clinical rotations. The goal is that, if students are introduced to underserved rural or urban areas, they will go back there to practice their profession.
  • Retention—The center uses a variety of strategies to keep primary care providers in underserved areas. Those include using distance learning technology to connect with professionals and provide continuing education and professional development on pertinent topics. Examples include live video streaming of conferences and professional development opportunities to providers at AHEC's other four centers across Michigan.

AHEC utilizes additional strategies to boost placement and retention in medically underserved areas, such as applying with the National Health Service Corps to provide up to two years of student loan repayments if the graduate sets up shop in designated areas.

Brennan says the center also partners through its 20-member community advisory board comprised of constituents throughout its 19-county region. Members include upper-level health care providers, social service representatives, educators and others to help advise the center and run AHEC's programs.

"The forecast is for a severe shortage of health care workers in certain areas," Brennan says. "People are starting to retire and we don't have enough graduates to fill the void."

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