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SC AHEC Scholars: Preparing the Next Generation of Primary Care Providers

Hannah Robinson, MD knew she wanted to pursue a career in healthcare from a young age. 

“I’ve always wanted to be a doctor since about the sixth grade,” said Dr. Robinson. “I remember being in health class and watching the Miracle of Life video and just being fascinated with women and their ability to create and bear life.”

Prior to attending medical school, Dr. Robinson spent time working on the obstetrics unit at her local hospital in Rock Hill and observed a trend with their patients.

“What I noticed was a lot of the families that we serviced actually weren’t from Rock Hill. We also served surrounding counties that were really rural and seeing how these families were traveling to Rock Hill to deliver their babies was really shocking to me,” said Robinson. 

Due to a maldistribution of OB/GYNs in the state of South Carolina, individuals may have to travel great distances just to receive the care they need. In its most recent South Carolina Health Professions Data Book published in 2021, the SC Office for Healthcare Workforce reported that of South Carolina’s 46 counties, there were 14 counties without a practicing OB/GYN and five counties with only one.

Now a recent graduate from the Medical University of South Carolina’s (MUSC's) College of Medicine, Dr. Robinson intends to return to rural South Carolina after completing residency to help improve access to healthcare for those who need it most and, in turn, meeting a critical need for maternal and women’s healthcare in our state.

Developing Leaders in Interprofessional, Transformative Practice

An attending physician introduced Dr. Robinson to the South Carolina AHEC Scholars program while in medical school at MUSC and she immediately identified with the program’s mission of preparing students across the state to become leaders in primary care for rural and undeserved communities. Part of a national initiative to prepare tomorrow’s health professionals, the AHEC Scholars program focuses on developing health professions students for interprofessional primary care practice. Dr. Robinson enrolled in the AHEC Scholars program and completed it concurrently with her graduation from medical school. 

The AHEC Scholars program supports students for at least two years while they are in their health professions education program and offers supplemental learning and training opportunities in interprofessional practice, behavioral health integration, social determinants of health, cultural competency, practice transformation and more. Other components of the program include training opportunities via team-based clinical fieldwork placements, stipends available to assist with travel expenses to rural clinical sites, networking with leaders and providers statewide, and access to AHEC coordinators who guide and mentor students through the program.

South Carolina’s AHEC Scholars program is open to health professions students of a variety of specialties, including dental, medicine, nurse practitioner, occupational therapy (OT), physical therapy (PT), physician assistant (PA), pharmacy, and social work. For more information about student eligibility, visit the South Carolina AHEC Scholars webpage.

Vyoma Barodia, a fellow AHEC Scholar who recently graduated from MUSC’s PA program, found the variety of current topics that the AHEC Scholars learning modules covered very interesting, including opioid use, suicide prevention, cultural humility and how to have end-of-life care discussions.

“Even things like Medicaid and how reimbursement works was very important,” said Barodia. “I learned all of these topics through the virtual classes you can take through AHEC Scholars.”

Barodia’s favorite part of the program was getting the opportunity to work with other health professionals and students across different disciplines in simulations.

Pee Dee AHEC Scholars and other health professions students participate in a simulation.
Pee Dee AHEC Scholars and other health professions students pose for the camera during a simulation.

“There was particularly a high-fidelity simulation that I participated in and being a PA student, I was responsible for asking this patient, who was played by a robot, on why they were brought in,” said Barodia. “Then we actually tried to come up with the diagnosis to better help them, and besides that, to also come up with the resources to better help serve this underserved patient that I had.”

Barodia was able to draw upon her own clinical experiences, and those from the interprofessional team of OT, PT, dietary, and medical students involved in the simulation to brainstorm a solution for care going forward as a team.

“I didn’t think of certain things that OT and PT were thinking about and, holistically, I thought we were able to provide the best care that we could,” said Barodia. “That was very enriching.”

Dr. Robinson shared similar experiences as Barodia, participating in a simulation as a provider and debriefing with students of other specialties afterwards. In one specific training while serving a patient who revealed they had asthma, a nursing student walked Dr. Robinson through the asthma protocol. 

“It was just eye-opening to me that each of these specific professions have these different and specific things that they learn that is just informative for us all to learn. And so, I definitely went home and learned that protocol because as a provider, even if I’m an obstetrician gynecology resident, I’m going to have a patient with asthma, and I should know how to help manage that.”

Transforming Primary Care and Improving Patient Care

As the first member of his family to pursue medicine as a career, University of South Carolina – Columbia third-year medical student Andrew Westfall thought the opportunity to network with healthcare providers and leaders in South Carolina as well as peers and even younger students has been a great benefit of the AHEC Scholars program.

“I was able to speak with a couple of high school students at one of the events that AHEC offered and to me that was very exciting because I didn’t really have anybody when I was going into medical school to talk with and who was able to tell me things to do. I figured it out on my own,” said Westfall. “To be able to work with other students that want to go into medicine and be able to help educate them as to the steps they need to take and what goals to set for themselves – that was very rewarding and I very much enjoyed that.”

Westfall has seen firsthand the impact providers can have on their patients, having helped support and care for both his grandmother and mother while they faced health issues. His passion for people was ultimately what drove him to pursue a career in healthcare.

“I wanted to be able to make that difference and be there for people that were in that kind of situation,” said Westfall. “And I think it’s important to be able to spend time with your patients and appreciate them because sometimes they just need someone to talk to and be able to be there for them.”

Jasmine Fox-Bookhardt, a recent graduate of the MUSC PA program, shared similar sentiments as Westfall regarding the importance of relatability in patient care. Growing up in rural South Carolina, she personally understands the value of shared life experiences in fostering a strong connection between patients and healthcare providers. 

“I grew up in Reevesville, South Carolina – I am the product of a rural area,” said Fox-Bookhardt. “I just feel more relatable that I am from a rural area as well, so I can really know what [the patients] are talking about. It makes it more personable to your patient to build that relationship and trust because they see that I’m from where you’re from.”

Fox-Bookhardt is prepping to take her national board certification exam and then plans to remain in rural South Carolina to practice in family medicine. She recommends the AHEC Scholars program to all interested health professions students, regardless of what specialty or focus they’d like to pursue later.

“Even if you don’t want to go into rural medicine or a medically underserved area – it’s still really good to have that background because you’re going to meet people from any and everywhere, and you want to be able to relate to them and understand the social determinants of health and why they may be struggling, why they may not be compliant on medications,” said Fox-Bookhardt. “I feel like [the AHEC Scholars Program] will give you at least that background, so you won’t feel so lost with your patient.”

Tracking Program Outcomes

The AHEC Scholars program was rolled out nationally as an update to the federal AHEC program requirements from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) in 2017. In 2022, SC AHEC marked the conclusion of the first program cycle with the graduation of the fourth cohort of SC AHEC Scholars.

During the first four cohorts, the 180 scholars from nine educational institutions in South Carolina completed the SC AHEC Scholars program, accruing 38,886 hours of experiential and 10,514 hours of didactic training.

A chart showing the breakdown of the 180 SC AHEC Scholars in the first four cohorts by disciplines: Pharmacy (53), Physician Assistant (39), Social Work - MSW (25), Nurse Practitioner (22), Medicine - MD (18), Medicine - DO (13), Occupational Therapy (6), Dental (3) and Physical Therapy (1). During the first four cohorts, the SC AHEC Scholars Program had nine educational institutions represented and completed 38,886 hours of experiential training and 10,514 hours of didactic training.
Breakdown of first four cohorts of SC AHEC Scholars found in the 2022 South Carolina AHEC Annual Report.

Of 24 students from the first two cohorts of SC AHEC Scholars who responded to a survey about where they were practicing/training more than one year out from graduation, 79% reported they were practicing/training in a primary care setting and 38% were practicing/training in a rural and/or medically underserved area (57% response rate).

About the Program

Applications for the South Carolina AHEC Scholars program are accepted on an ongoing basis. More information about the program is available on the South Carolina AHEC Scholars webpage, as well on the flyer (PDF) or in the South Carolina AHEC Scholars Handbook (PDF).


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