Collaborative effort at UofL to improve delivery of rural healthcare

By Kelli Bullard Dunn, MD

Kentucky is a largely rural and impoverished state that consistently ranks in the lowest percentile nationally for access to quality healthcare. According to the 2016 Annual Report of America’s Health Rankings, published by United Health Foundation, Kentucky ranks 45th in health nationally.

Access to quality medical care depends on many factors, not least of which is access to healthcare providers, and medical workforce needs are profound across the commonwealth. For example, Kentucky ranks below the national average in number of primary care physicians.

The good news is that a collaborative effort is in place across the state to address these issues.

Collaborative Effort

The Kentucky Area Health Education Centers program (KY AHEC) is a collaboration of the University of Louisville, the University of Kentucky and federal, state, regional and local community-based organizations to improve access to and quality of healthcare for Kentucky residents and to eliminate health disparities. The program is supported by a grant from the Health Resources & Services Administration.

To address medically under-served communities and populations in the state, the program develops projects designed to recruit, train and retain pre-professional and health profession students and healthcare professionals and to improve the delivery of healthcare.

Scholars Program

One recent addition to the KY AHEC portfolio is the AHEC Scholars Program. This program provides professional healthcare students across the commonwealth with a unique, interdisciplinary opportunity aimed at improving access to quality healthcare in our communities.

The two-year training experience includes 40 hours of didactic training and 40 hours of hands-on learning each year. Core topics include inter-professional education, behavioral health integration, social determinants of health, cultural competency, practice transformation and current and emerging health issues such as the burgeoning opioid abuse crisis.

The goals of the AHEC Scholars Programs are to:

  • Increase diversity and to promote cultural competency in the AHEC Scholar teams.
  • Address health professional workforce shortages in rural areas.
  • Increase individual personal effectiveness and cognitive skills necessary for a strong health professional who will be a good steward of resources and will promote high quality healthcare.

These goals will result in a diverse and culturally competent workforce to address healthcare disparities in our communities.

First Cohort

In September 2018, the Kentucky AHEC Scholars program admitted its first cohort of 94 students. The scholars represent nine disciplines, including osteopathic medicine, nursing, laboratory medicine, public health, health information technology, experimental science, dietetics and surgical technician. The scholars are completing their second year of the program.

AHEC Scholar Jenna Mitchell, a physical therapy assistant student at Madisonville Community College, has found value in the training provided by the program.

“Being an AHEC Scholar has had a tremendous impact on the way I view healthcare. It has enhanced my knowledge of different types of communities and populations I will eventually serve as a clinician,” Mitchell said. “The AHEC Program has not only helped me make connections with other future clinicians, it also has given me multiple resources to broaden my skills.”


Rebecca Oliver, a fourth-year medical student at the Kentucky College of Osteopathic Medicine at the University of Pikeville, applied to the AHEC Scholars Program for the opportunities to learn cultural competence in a clinical setting.

“Being a rural health scholar has been a great investment of my time by providing additional educational resources beyond what I experience day-to-day on my rotations,” Oliver said.

Recruitment is underway for the 2019-2021 class with the goal of recruiting 120 scholars. Healthcare professional students in their last two years of an accredited degree or certificate program in Kentucky are eligible.

-Kelli Dunn, MD, is vice dean for community engagement and diversity at the University of Louisville School of Medicine.


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