Indian health advisory council to develop state’s first American Indian Health Health Education Center in Arizona


Soraya Marashi


The Arizona Advisory Council on Indian Health Care (AACIHC) was recently selected by the University of Arizona Health Sciences’ Arizona Area Health Education Center Program (AHEC) to develop the 6th AHEC Regional Center in the state, which will focus exclusively on the American Indian health care system.


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According to the University of Arizona Health Sciences, this will be the state’s first and one of the nation’s few AHECs devoted entirely to the American Indian population. 

Kim Russell, Director of the AACIHC, told State of Reform that the American Indian AHEC (AIH-AHEC) will work to create strategies to address health care workforce shortage issues in tribal communities by targeting American Indian students that are pursuing health careers. 

“What we’re trying to do is [develop] a tribal model approach to creating primary care providers that will eventually decide to practice in our tribal communities,” she said. “We’re going to be working with individuals that have already gone through their bachelor’s program or their graduate studies, so this program is really focusing on the end of the health care career pathway where they’re trying to figure out where to practice.”

Russell emphasized the importance of American Indian students seeing themselves represented in the health care workforce. According to data from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), between 2011 and 2015, American Indians and Alaska Natives were underrepresented in most health care occupations, with especially low representation among physicians and dentists. 

“American Indian students traditionally will serve in American Indian communities,” she said. “Even if it’s not their own American Indian community, they usually have a desire to serve an American Indian community or to serve in a health care system that provides care to a significantly American Indian population … I think that [representation] is what’s missing for some of our young people—if you can see it, you can achieve it. And so by [recruiting and retaining more American Indian health care professionals], our young people can see that and perhaps someday aspire to do that.”

Russell said that while other strategies are being developed by other agencies and organizations to address tribal community health care workforce shortages, the AIH-AHEC will allow an American Indian agency to have a seat at the state policymaking table. 

“What this allows us to do is tap into state resources, and I don’t think we’ve traditionally tapped into state resources, and I think it really provides us a seat at the table now when we talk about state policy,” she said. “I’m excited about that because now we can be a part of state policy conversations, where they’re trying to address health care shortages across the state … I think it’s just being able to tap into a different type of resource and figure out how it fits into all the different assets we already have in our tribal communities.”

She added that the AACIHC is prohibited from using any federal dollars to develop the AIH-AHEC and is confined to only state funding.

Russell said the contracts were officially signed last Thursday, and now the AACIHC is focusing on hiring a full-time director for the AIH-AHEC. The council is also focusing on creating agreements with the 2 tribal partner groups, San Carlos Apache Healthcare Corporation and Gila River Health Care, that it will be collaborating with on the development of the AIH-AHEC.

Russell said the AIH-AHEC will be up and running within 14 months, with the option to renew the contract for another 5 years afterward.