The U.S. Congress created the national Area Health Education Centers (AHEC) programs in 1971 as part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). The AHECs were created to link the resources of university health science centers with local planning, educational and clinical resources. Today, this network of health-related institutions provides multidisciplinary educational services to students, faculty and local practitioners, ultimately improving healthcare delivery in medically underserved areas throughout our nation.
The Colorado Area Health Education Centers were established in 1977 as an academic-community partnership involving University of Colorado Denver and community-based nonprofit AHEC offices, each serving a designated region of the state. The mission of the Colorado AHEC is to improve the quality and quantity of education to healthcare providers in Colorado in order to enhance the delivery of healthcare services throughout the state, with special emphasis on frontier, rural and urban communities and minority populations. The Colorado AHEC office and the five regional AHEC offices serve as liaisons between the University of Colorado Denver and local communities to develop educational outreach and support systems from CU Denver, and link university resources with local planning, educational and clinical resources.
So that’s the official version of an AHEC. But what does an AHEC really do?
Colorado’s Area Health Education Centers provide a host of educational and public health services all over the state. The AHEC provides housing for students from our health professions schools. An AHEC provides home visits to a frail elderly man in San Luis Valley. An AHEC teaches nurses and radiology techs the best evidence-based practice. An AHEC helps implement a new clinical campus for medical students. An AHEC brings high school students from all over Colorado to the health sciences center campus to learn about health careers.
An AHEC helps educate community members about heart disease risks. An AHEC helps provide oral health to children in rural Colorado. The AHECs honor excellence in nursing with the Nightingale awards. An AHEC helps teach physicians how to perform colonoscopy. And an AHEC does puppet shows about health careers for elementary school kids, and helps provide asthma education to physician offices. And…and…and…
An AHEC is a teacher, a researcher, a student, a doctor, nurse, pharmacist, dentist, a public health worker, a community advocate, a mother, father, grandma, sibling, child. An AHEC is part of our community; part of your community. AHEC represents the best in caring and educating, training and evaluating, learning and acting.
I recently heard an AHEC director say, “AHEC is America’s best kept healthcare secret.” I think that’s right. Most folks don’t really know about their local AHEC; most don’t know about the terrific work their AHEC is doing. But I think most people in Colorado are benefiting from the work of their AHEC. AHEC must directly or indirectly impact nearly all of Colorado.
So, if your child comes home excited about a health career, you may want to thank your local AHEC. If your physician knows the latest on asthma or COPD care, you may want to thank your AHEC. If your nurse provides the best care, you may want to thank the AHEC (and nominate her for a Nightingale award.) If you learn about your high blood pressure at the local bank or community center, you may want to thank your AHEC.
I am honored to be part of the Colorado AHEC. It is a pleasure to come to work and be part of the great things the AHEC is doing. Look around for your AHEC. Call your AHEC. Use your AHEC. Live healthy, live long.
Jack Westfall, MD, MPH
Colorado AHEC Director
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