Student Spotlight: PharmCATs Share Why They Participate in the Arizona AHEC Program

The Area Health Education Center (AHEC) is a non-profit organization born out of a Carnegie Foundation study to help medical provider shortages in rural America. There are over 200 geographically based organizations under AHEC including the Arizona AHEC which operates out of the University of Arizona Health Sciences. The internship connects students to areas in need of medical assistance and resources and allows them to work with peers from other universities as well as with other health professions such as nurses, doctors, and public health workers.

We spoke with some of the PharmCATs involved in the program to learn about their experience with AHEC as well as what projects they are working on.

Name: Daniel Tellez
Branch: SEAHEC (South East Arizona Health Education Center)
Program: P2 PharmD

Q: What initially interested you in AHEC?

A: It's the community that I want to serve. I graduated from U of A in 2014. I moved away and my wife and I missed it so we came back. This is a place that we want to set roots. These are the people that we want to help. I think that just fits hand in hand with those two programs. It also allowed me to travel a little bit. Traveling to Nogales, which is what I've been doing every week, isn't a big ride, but it still gets you out. It still gets you moving around, especially now during the pandemic when I don't go anywhere. That's been nice.

Q: What are you currently working on in AHEC?

A: We have monthly meetings where we go over vastly different topics each time. We have had seminars on working in interprofessional groups, we've had seminars about windshield surveys. In particular, for my group, we're doing a small town called Winchester heights, a farming community right outside of Wilcox. We'll be starting a community needs assessment, which is essentially a big report outlining the health status and health resources of a community. We go through: Where do these citizens go for health care what health care is available to them? What helps them get to that health care? What prevents them from accessing that health care such as transportation.

Q: What have you gained from the program?

A: I gained perspective, it opens you up to new cultures and ideas. In AHEC we are in a group of about 10 students, but these students are from nursing, public health, and medicine. You're really able to gain perspective into these other professions as well as these other cultures. I gained a better perspective of health in general. Health is not just what your blood pressure is, or what your glucose levels are. It's much more vast than that. It is physical, mental, and spiritual care. It doesn’t just include medicine and examinations, but rather all the things that somebody needs to get their health care insurance or healthy foods.

Name: Celestina Mesa
Branch: EHEC (Eastern Health Education Center)
Program: P3 PharmD

Q: What are you currently working on in AHEC

A: I'm working with a doctor and she runs her own clinic. Then, on the weekends, she works in the ER at Banner in Payson, Arizona. I started, almost a year and a half ago, they had three ambulances for the whole town. A lot of the time, their residents are a lot of the geriatric population, who don't have their own transportation or family to help them go to doctor's appointments or urgent care. They just got into the habit of calling 911 for non-emergency situations and it was all because they didn't have transportation. When that happens, the ambulances are not being used properly and when there is an actual emergency. They presented to us the idea of training EMSs to be able to drive cars around instead of ambulances that way the ambulances are held for emergencies only. We heard from all the community members, including a school superintendent, the school nurse, another doctor in the area, and just people in the community who are leaders. We decided to go with a community paramedicine program. We want EMS people or volunteers that are willing to go to houses and visit and then take them to their doctor's appointments.

Q: What have you gained from the program?

A: I've done a lot of networking and interprofessional work, which is really nice. I work with MD students such as medical students, nurse practitioner students, physician assistants students, and even public health students. I’ve learned more about what they do in their professions and have been able to teach them about what I do. As well, I think getting feedback from the community members is a humbling experience because they appreciate health care professionals a lot.

Name: Lacey Oscarson
Branch: CAAHEC (Central Arizona Health Education Center)
Program: P3 PharmD

Q: How were you introduced to the AHEC program?

I was introduced to the AHEC through the College of Pharmacy's Rural Health Professions Program (RHPP) and Dr. Hall-Lipsy.

Q: What have you gained from the program?

A: I have gained knowledge of other health care professionals, their schooling, and their scope of practice. I also feel like I gained more holistic knowledge of what can cause health disparities and how those disparities can impact the lives of the individual and the population.

Q: Is there anything else you would like other people to know about your program or AHEC in general? Any broad takeaways from your experience?

A: I think people should know that each AHEC sector allows you to focus on specific populations. South Eastern Arizona AHEC is right near the border with Mexico so there is a large Hispanic population, Northern Arizona AHEC includes Navajo Nation, and Central Arizona AHEC holds a large urban population. Each population will have similarities in barriers that they face, but the nuances of the barriers to health and their health status are unique. AHEC has allowed me to look into urban health disparities that are happening right in my hometown. It instills and strengthens the healthcare provider's passion to make a difference.

Name: Ajla Mujezinovic
Branch: NAHEC (Northern Arizona Health Education Center)
Program: P4 PharmD

Q: What did you work on during your time with AHEC?

A: My final project reviewed homeless youth with food insecurities. We choose this topic due to the high homeless population in northern AZ and because one of our nurse practitioner students was going into pediatrics. This project was incredibly humbling because it showed how necessary affordable housing is and access to food is, but how cumbersome it is to get.

Q: What have you gained from the program?

A: This program taught me so much in regard to working on interprofessional teams and its necessity in rural and underserved populations. These are populations that usually do not have access to health care, particularly primary and preventative care. These patients see whichever provider is closest to them and that person takes on the role of managing preventative health and their chronic disease states. NAHEC showed me the best way to manage patients in rural areas is through collaboration with other providers.

Q: Is there anything else you would like other people to know about your program or AHEC in general? Any broad takeaways from your experience?

A: Most patients and providers don’t really fully understand what pharmacy can do for them and I really think that the best way to teach this is through interprofessional opportunities like AHEC. I hope that my time in AHEC has shifted the mindset of the providers I worked with and taught them the full scope of pharmacy practice. My hope is that pharmacy continues to grow this!

Name: Anael Ponciano
Branch: NAHEC (Northern Arizona Health Education Center)
Program: P3 PharmD

Q: What initially interested you in AHEC?

A: I do a lot of Rural Health Program, rural health assistance, and being part of AHEC  emphasizes helping out rural areas. And that's what got me really interested because I am part of the Rural Health Program. So far, I'm loving it,  because I've noticed that we're actually contributing a lot of help to rural areas in Arizona. 

Q: What are you currently working on in AHEC?

A: Last semester, we were trying to help a small clinic in northwestern Flagstaff on how to better provide them with assistance in testing the homeless population in Flagstaff. We know that right now that the tests being done require you to have either a phone or at least access to an email. And we know that most of the homeless population do not have either. Therefore, I believe our coordinator, our group's preceptor, decided to get in touch with the staff. Together, we figured out the best to help the homeless population get tested. 

This semester, we are working on finding ways to make a pamphlet to demystify or debunk myths surrounding the COVID vaccine. This was something I proposed because I currently work at a retail pharmacy where a lot of my incoming patients are skeptical about whether they should get the vaccine or not. I went ahead and educated myself on what I could find on the CDC website, to get back to my patients and motivate them. Now, we're all working together to come up with the top 10 myths out there and provide facts that debunk those misconceptions. For example, we heard someone say that vaccines can make you sterile. We went ahead and looked this up and sure enough, no, it's just a rumor that's going around. We're able to provide actual cold, hard facts that you can just have in a little pamphlet.