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NEOAHEC: Moving from Health Career Exploration to Achievement

By Brittany Hargrove and Meredith Lair

Guy Laliberté, one of the co-founders of the world-famous Cirque du Soleil, once said, “Life is full of adventure. There's no such thing as a clear pathway.” While NEOAHEC agrees that life is (and should be) filled with adventure and discovery, we are working to prove that effective pathways can be built to aid in success—in our case, to help students move from exploration to achievement in rural healthcare.

NEOAHEC’s health career pathway begins with exploratory initiatives for middle and high school students. For example, our long-running Girls in Science program in collaboration with Eastern Oregon University provides a full day of hands-on science discovery to help middle school girls develop a lifelong passion for science. Next, our dual-credit online Future Health Professionals of Oregon college course through Eastern Oregon University introduces students to a variety of career options in healthcare, along with invaluable guidance addressing what they need to do to be successful.

Perhaps even more notable is our widely acclaimed MedQuest Health Career Exploration Camp. MedQuest is held the second-to-last week in June each year and boasts an impressive mix of job shadows, panel discussions, tours at local medical facilities, and other hands-on activities to fuel and refine students’ health career dreams.

Hannah Widener, a 2013 MedQuest camper and long-time camp counselor, hailed MedQuest as “Hands-down, one of the greatest opportunities for high school students in rural Oregon who are exploring a profession in the medical field.” The incoming second-year nursing student at Walla Walla Community College in Clarkston, WA asked, “How are students supposed to know what professions and specialties there are in the medical field without hands-on experience?” She elaborated, “It is important for them to see if they can envision themselves enjoying this type of career.”

(Hannah, in blue, with Camp Director Bailey Ault and other 2018 MedQuest Counselors)

Pedro Abdala is another shining example of a student who found direction and support through AHEC health career exploration programs. The second-year OHSU medical student moved from Brazil to Imbler, Oregon, when he was 9 years old, graduating from Imbler High School in 2009. Pedro had the opportunity to attend MedStars when he was a junior in high school—a program similar to MedQuest that was formerly offered at OHSU in Portland with the support of NEOAHEC and other regional centers. He later served as a counselor at MedStars, in addition to other immersive health career camps across the state.

“I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was a little kid,” explained Pedro. “[But] my involvement with all of these programs was great for developing and continuing my interest in the medical field. It also allowed me to teach and to share these interests with younger students. By the time I went to college at the University of Oregon, I was quite certain that medicine was the career for me.”

Further down NEOAHEC’s pathway are programs for undergraduate and graduate students. One such offering includes OHSU’s Rural Medical Discovery (RMD) program that NEOAHEC helps to coordinate in our region. “In this program, a small group of OHSU medical students take a multi-day trip to a rural area during their Enrichment Week to immerse themselves in the rural environment, work with rural doctors, and have some fun,” explained Pedro. Pedro is a member of the Dean’s Student Rural Advisory Group (DSRAG) at OHSU. Last year, NEOAHEC helped Pedro and several DSRAG members coordinate an eye-opening RMD trip to La Grande and Enterprise in Eastern Oregon.

“This was an especially meaningful trip for me because I was able to come home and share the experience of Union and Wallowa counties with some incredible classmates, and work one-on-one with a local provider. This experience solidified my desire to practice in rural medicine.” Pedro added, “It also gave me great hope that my colleagues would see the beauty of rural medicine and one day help to fulfill the need for providers in this area and in other areas like it.”

Similarly, NEOAHEC works with programs across the Northwest to coordinate clinical rotations and support housing for graduate students who are training for health careers. We recently had the opportunity to assist with Pedro’s current rural general surgery rotation at Grande Ronde Hospital in La Grande.

“My rotation is excellent” said Pedro. “I love being in my home community. I get a kick out of working in the OR and getting to help operate on patients. It’s an honor to work with Dr. Pearson and Dr. Woodworth, who are both incredible surgeons and great teachers. I see people I know every day at work, and it makes it feel that much more rewarding and enjoyable.”

(Pedro and fellow medical student, Will Hockett, hiking in the Eagle Cap Mountains)

Dr. Christopher Woodworth, a general surgeon in La Grande, added, “Getting a chance to train Pedro and other medical students from OHSU, especially the ones in the Rural Scholars program, is an excellent opportunity for insuring future doctors to be well-prepared and informed regarding rural practice. We have had many of the MedQuest high school students come through as well, and I believe that they get an excellent exposure to the rural practice of General Surgery. This is essential to them so they can make fully informed decisions regarding the direction they would like to take in their medical career. It is a privilege being involved in a small part of their journey.

Pedro plans to come back to Northeast Oregon following his residency to practice surgery for the rest of his career. The Scholars for Healthy Oregon Initiative (SHOI) recipient said, “Thanks to this initiative, my tuition is paid for in full. In exchange for this generosity, I am contracted to work for 5 years in a rural or underserved area of Oregon after I have completed my residency. As this was my passion and my goal from the beginning, I was more than happy to accept these terms.”

Finally, NEOAHEC offers a variety of continuing medical education (CME) initiatives for current providers in our eleven-county region. This spring, we hosted two mental health webcasts in La Grande through the OHSU Department of Continuing Medical Education, eliminating the need for local providers to travel to Portland for these training sessions. We also offered several scholarships for providers to attend the 2nd Annual Forum on Rural Aging, hosted by Oregon Office of Rural Health. As new territory for NEOAHEC, we look forward to expanding our CME offerings in the years to come.

All of us at NEOAHEC are proud to work alongside the Oregon AHEC team to educate and train tomorrow’s healthcare providers. If you are a student or professional at any point along this pathway, please reach out to us to find out how we can help you advance your health career goals.

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