AHEC: 40 years of teaching, caring

After forty years of improving the health of North Carolina’s citizens, AHEC is just hitting its stride.

The North Carolina Area Health Education Centers (AHEC) Program, based at Carolina, sends out hundreds of faculty members to towns across the state to teach, to care for patients and to look for ways to improve how each center serves the local community.  Nine regional centers serve all 100 counties in North Carolina.

Six UNC faculty members describe why AHEC is important to them and to the state. They are Jean Davison, School of Nursing; Seema Garg, School of Medicine; Kim Strom-Gottfried, School of Social Work; Brenda Mitchell, Department of Allied Health Sciences; Stephen Orton, Gillings School of Global Public Health; and Allen Samuelson, School of Dentistry.

Photos of the six UNC faculty members who do AHEC work.

Why do you do what you do through AHEC?

Orton: I’ve been lucky. My Ph.D. degree is in English from UNC, and at one time I thought that I was going to be an English professor. Then, I found that adult education is what gets me excited. My career shifted and I began thinking, ‘No, I am going to do leadership and teaching for grownups that they can apply now.’ For instance, we’re doing work for the Nash County health system. They came to us because they want to learn how to write for publication, publishing research that they’re doing. We set it up so we went down there one time and now we’re doing webinars.

Davison: I have been involved with AHEC since I was a UNC student when I was part of the rural health interdisciplinary team at Scotland Neck. I’ve had wonderful experiences. I graduated in 2000, then started working at federally funded community health centers. After joining the School of Nursing faculty, I was asked to teach an AHEC course – the adult physical assessment course for nurses. I started working with the School of Nursing AHEC liaison Gail Mazzocco then. She and I have taught that course in every AHEC, except where ECU is. I’ve connected with nurses across the state and, often, non-nurses such as dentists and allied health workers take the course.

Garg: AHEC helps me reach the UNC Department of Ophthalmology’s retinal clinic in New Bern, N.C., via AHEC’s Medical Air Operations. In addition, the infrastructure of the AHEC sites across the state facilitates our medical services to patients we wouldn’t normally be able to help, for instance, through telemedicine.

Mitchell: I believe in AHEC’s mission to serve the healthcare needs of North Carolinians. I orient students of all ages to services offered by AHEC. Also, our department engages in outreach programs for students from all backgrounds and education levels. I share information with them about AHEC and help students who need more information about pipeline programs for learning about health careers. I tell students that they are eligible to use AHEC housing while on rotations. Many of our disciplines encourage students to take at least one clinical rotation in rural N.C, so that they have an understanding of types of care and obstacles to care for many citizens. It is critical to prepare students who may later become professionals who will desire to stay in N.C.

Samuelson: It’s fun, the facilities are nice and the people are welcoming. It serves to keep me sharp and I hope I’m transmitting up-to-date material they find beneficial. I consider myself an ambassador for the School of Dentistry, the University, the town and profession. It might be unusual to consider it that way, but that’s my approach when I go to towns. My hope would be, as a dentist, to facilitate the practice of the dental teams’ goal to preserve the comfort, function and health of their patients. I focus on ethics, professionalism and preventive maintenance so that practitioners will be inspired to help their patients treasure their teeth and take care of them for a lifetime.

Strom-Gottfried: I like the interaction. It really informs my teaching and my writing. I couldn’t make up the complex cases that people raise in the workshops. Their work makes my work better because I can’t just be in the ivory tower. I have to really think about ethical standards, ethical decision making, and how those apply in people’s real-life decisions. AHEC workshops draw a wide variety of disciplines and people at different crossroads. I always think that when we go out, we are ambassadors of the University, hopefully making their lives maybe, especially around ethical dilemmas, less stressful.

How have you influenced people through AHEC and what influence do you hope to have in the future?

Strom-Gottfried: I want people to feel less alone with their ethical dilemmas. I hope to create conversations in which people can talk about dilemmas, whether they are hypothetical or their own. Part of it is to break down the isolation and sometimes shame that people can carry around with ethical dilemmas. I want to be relevant and conversational and encourage a sense of empowerment.

Samuelson: I encourage them to do what they’re already doing well. I’m talking about day-in, day-out dentists, dental hygienists and dental assistants who, for the most part, look at each patient as human first without considering their own agenda, then take care of what that patient needs at that time in their life. Establishing comfort, function, health and esthetics using love and creativity given a patient’s circumstances, temperament and objectives at that time is our privilege. I stress awareness of caregivers of disabled patients – the wife of a husband with dementia or the parent of a special-needs child. See the patients as people first, affirm their humanity and encourage the caregiver and let them know you care about them as well.

Davison: People say the course I teach is really important to their practice. For many the course is a refresher but they have learned new skills. I hope that I’ve had a huge impact on the practice of nursing across the state. I’ve taught at least 10 of these workshops each year since 2007, with about 20-to-30 nurse sin my classes. We teach over a 1,000 nurses each year and nobody necessarily retakes the course. That’s 5,000 nurses in our state that have probably taken this course. Most of the nurses say their physical assessment and history taking are much improved, so obviously this should impact patient outcomes. That’s why AHEC is so vital to the training of future health professionals and vital to continuing education for those out in the field.

Garg: Diabetes-related retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness in North Carolina, and this promising new collaboration we’re working on with AHEC will greatly benefit patients who may have poor access to sub-specialty eye care geographically and financially.

Mitchell: My influence, in many ways, has been indirect as a liaison between Allied Health faculty, practitioners in the state and students. As a liaison for faculty, I represent our department at meetings to promote our disciplines. Within our department, I share information about continuing education programs that AHEC faculty have the expertise and willingness and to present in our state. I enjoy mentoring students to become outstanding health professionals and to give back. They have achieved things as the result of sacrifices that others made for them. I encourage them to consider that and to always reach back to help others along. This has been ingrained in me from a child and I love helping others achieve their goals to better themselves and in turn others.

Orton: I’ve learned by working with leaders and managers for over 15 years that people want to be engaged and do a good job at work. If that’s not happening, something needs to be tweaked. Most people have big-picture goals, and I want to help leaders and managers have the attitude that we’re all in this together. So, if something’s not working right, figure out what it is and fix it. Problems usually are not the people. My hope is that I can in some small measure help them create better, more efficient, more mission-driven and engaged places to deliver and create community health.

About the six UNC-based AHEC members:

Davison, DNP, RN, FNP-C, began as a family nurse practitioner (FNP) at Caswell Family Medical Center in Yanceyville, N.C., and started precepting AHEC nurse practictioner students in 2001. In 2006, she began teaching fulltime at the School of Nursing FNP program at clinical sites from Asheville to Cherry Point. She’s taught at eight AHECs, and teaches adult physical assessment for RNs and an AHEC nurse refresher program course.

Garg, MD, PhD, is an associate professor in the department of ophthalmology in the UNC School of Medicine. Garg is a retina specialist who has been flying via AHEC’s Medical Air Operations to a retina clinic in New Bern for the past eight years. She is also pioneering a statewide telemedicine program for diabetic retinopathy evaluationby working with the Mountain, Eastern, Southern Regional and Greensboro AHEC primary care residency programs.

Mitchell, MS, is a clinical assistant professor 
and associate chair of the Department of Allied Health Sciences Office of Student Services and AHEC Operations. She is the liaison between the department and AHEC, promoting continuing education, student clinical experiences and recruiting students to allied health professions. She advises the Health Affairs Pipeline Initiative (HAPI), which seeks to increase retention of underrepresented minority health careers students at UNC.

Orton, PhD, is deputy director for executive education at the NC Institute for Public Health of the Gillings School of Global Public Health. Orton has worked with public health organizations to develop leaders and create organizational change through programs at Charlotte AHEC, Northwest AHEC, and Wake AHEC.

Samuelson, DDS, is a clinical associate professor in the department of dental ecology at the School of Dentistry. He is director of the Special Care/Geriatric Clinic and also attends at UNC Hospitals. Samuelson has taught AHEC courses for practitioners in Rowan, Davidson, Craven, Jones, Pamlico, Rowan, Davie, Cumberland and Mecklenburg counties.

Strom-Gottfried, PhD, LISW, is the Smith P. Theimann, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Professional Practice at the School of Social Work. She is nationally known in the areas of ethics, moral courage, and social work education. Offering trainings to all nine AHECs, Strom-Gottfried provided 50 hours of training to more than 270 participants over the past year.

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Published March 22, 2013.