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Happy National Rural Health Day!

Today is the day that we "Celebrate the Power of Rural” by honoring the selfless, community-minded, “can do” spirit that prevails in rural America. National Rural Health Day gives us a chance to bring to light the unique healthcare challenges that rural citizens face and highlight some of the great successes in our region.

Perhaps the most notable challenge present in rural and frontier communities throughout Oregon and the nation is access to healthcare providers. Eastern Oregon is no exception. Some of our communities lack either primary care or specialty care, while others still lack health providers of any kind.

Northeast Oregon Area Health Education Center (NEOAHEC) has been working persistently to combat this provider shortage over the past three decades, mostly through health career education programs. In the last five years, NEOAHEC has transitioned to a more holistic approach, connecting programs and outreach from Oregon Health and Sciences University (OHSU) to grow our own healthcare professionals through health career education. NEOAHEC also works to increase the numbers of matriculated health professions students with exposure to our rural communities, with the idea that some of them will return to practice here.

“The greatest gift that my organization receives as part of our work is to develop relationships with students throughout the pipeline and become a small part of their journey to a healthcare provider,” expressed Meredith Lair, NEOAHEC Executive Director.

NEOAHEC recently had the privilege of working with Alden Wyland from Pendleton, Oregon. Alden was entering his gap year (time between undergraduate and advanced degree program) when he reached out to NEOAHEC. He was working towards applying to medical school when his gap year began to fall into place. Alden immersed himself in his community and found niches to fill unmet needs almost immediately. This included working as a night shift lab processor at Interpath Laboratory, serving as the Junior Varsity Soccer Coach at Pendleton High School, volunteering with a Pendleton area youth outreach program, and providing a variety of services at the Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center, including medical scribe support. NEOAHEC offered assistance for Alden to receive his medical scribe certification, which allowed him to more effectively assist providers at Yellowhawk.

“All of these experiences opened my eyes to the depth of need for providers in rural areas, and reinforced my desire to go back home and practice in my community,” said Alden.

Alden has since been admitted to the OHSU School of Medicine and started his first year this fall. He also became a Scholars for a Healthy Oregon Initiative (SHOI) Scholar, covering the cost of tuition and fees in his clinical degree program, and plans to enroll in the AHEC Scholars program his second year of medical school.

“During the first few months in medical school, I have quickly realized that there is a major knowledge gap about rural medicine, and how much of Oregon is truly rural,” stated Alden. “I am surgically driven and many of my peers are surprised to hear that orthopedic specialists actually exist in rural eastern Oregon.”

Recently Alden has become involved in a Rural Health Interest Group at OHSU and hopes to bring a group of medical students to northeast Oregon during a week-long break in the curriculum so his peers can learn more about the region and its healthcare.

Alden added, “One of the best things about my gap year experience was realizing how much help and support there is for students to be successful at becoming healthcare providers. There really is a commitment to meeting the provider needs in rural communities.”

“When I received the email from Alden telling us that he’d been accepted to OHSU and his follow-up email with the news that he’d been awarded a SHOI scholarship it was exciting and I felt proud that we’d done our part to help him along his path,” said Meredith.

Another way that NEOAHEC encourages clinical degree students to experience rural and frontier healthcare is by offering travel support from OHSU to established clinical rotation sites in the region. In 2019, the Eastern Oregon Coordinated Care Organization (EOCCO) generously awarded NEOAHEC funds to provide this assistance, which to date, has benefited 42 students. Recipients have called the support “unexpected and very much appreciated.”

Last year, regional preceptors along with NEOAHEC, welcomed nearly 60 interprofessional students from OHSU into our communities. We were fortunate to host Tajwar Taher, a medical student from OHSU, who spent some of his childhood growing up in Pendleton. Taj and his wife Sabah spent three months in Baker City during a rural clinical experience, and had glowing things to say about their time.

“We felt completely embraced by the community and warmly welcomed. We enjoyed working and volunteering in the community, spending time with new friends and co-workers, exploring local sites, and praying in the park,” said Taj.

All of us at NEOAHEC would like to extend our thanks and give applause to our rural communities who open not only their clinics, but also their rural lifestyle to visiting learners like Taj each year. The contribution to sustaining high-quality learning experiences grows and encourages the next generation of healthcare workforce for eastern Oregon.

Check out this special Eastern Oregon Alive TV interview with NEOAHEC Executive Director Meredith Lair, along with registered nurses Cami Bean and Jennifer Province!

Learn more about National Rural Health Day!

Listen to an OHSU podcast celebrating NRHD!