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Area Health Education Center of Southwest Oregon looks ahead to recruit young professionals now

Shared goals are a great starting point for allies. Comparing the objectives of DCPSS with those of the Roseburg-based Area Health Education Center of Southwest Oregon demonstrates a natural fit that can’t help but make an impact.

AHEC’s mission is to provide education, training and services to build a stable of health care workers in rural communities. It does so in two streams: primary care (doctors, nurse practitioners, physician assistants); and nurses and allied health care workers (the latter including radiology technicians, opticians, dental hygienists and other support staff).

“Our primary purpose is to grow our own health care workers from students in our area,” said Chris Guastaferro, AHEC executive director and co-chairman for Douglas County Partners for Student Success. “For students who have positive cultural experiences in a place, whether it’s here or another rural setting, the chances are very high they will want to stay. Our course is to ensure that happens.”

AHEC does this by recruiting students through school career days, job fairs and referrals. Those ready to explore specific careers are immersed in the working days of area health care professionals. By joining health care providers and their staff members in practices and clinics, the students get hands-on experience that helps them clarify their educational and professional goals. They also can  get academic credit for the eight or nine weeks they spend in these occupational training sessions.

The added bonus, directly in line with DCPSS objectives, is that the investment in the personal reaps community benefits as well. The Oregon Healthcare Workforce Institute estimated in a 2010 publication that for every physician recruited to practice in Douglas County, another 22 jobs were created as part of an ancillary workforce.

And the need for more rural health care workers is clear. In February 2014, the Oregon Health Authority published a study that projects the demand for physicians in Douglas County will grow by 19 percent through 2020, with the demand for nurse practitioners and physician assistants rising between 21 and nearly 29 percent.

Another way in which AHEC is promoting career opportunities for area youth is the Bright Works Healthcare Team. This program now being piloted in Douglas County offers students opportunities to increase their leadership and professional skills through community projects with a focus on preventive health care. Students not only tally volunteer hours but also build professional portfolios, work with mentors and attend hands-on career days.

Eleven students have enrolled in internships in the past three years, with 22 students now registered for Bright Works. Nearly 40 health care professionals have been involved with students through career presentations and Diagnosis Day, in which students can follow a mock patient through various departments of a health care site.

Bright Works recently received $15,980 in program support mini-grant funds from DCPSS’s Umpqua Valley STEAM Hub.

AHEC hopes eventually to expand Bright Works to a regional outreach.

Guastaferro said one important aspect of the program is that it can be duplicated to create similar student groups for a variety of industries – engineering, natural resources, media, computer technology and many others.

“It’s a collective impact that can become an interdisciplinary model,” he said. “All sorts of groups can adopt it to their own curriculum to promote positive relationships, and that’s how you get students to come back to a rural area” for their professional lives.

“They’re vested in a community through those relationships so they take their newfound skills and bring them to a rural area and raise a family. That’s where economic vitality can be.”

Find out more about AHEC by visiting