On September 18, 2015, Governor Pat McCrory signed the state budget bill which included legislation that will allow the NC AHEC Program to expand the ability of Mountain AHEC (MAHEC) to train more health care providers for the western part of the state. This legislation was championed by Senator Tom Apodaca of Hendersonville. Apodaca has been a strong supporter of medical education as a means for health workforce distribution to areas of greatest need. This initiative has the potential to make a substantial health and economic impact in the region by expanding the UNC Health Sciences Campus in western North Carolina.

The plan calls for adding new residency training programs including general surgery and psychiatry and adding residents to family medicine training programs. Since 65% of doctors who train in residencies practice within 100 miles of the residency location at the completion of their training, communities will see a benefit for years to come.

The need for more health care providers in western NC is great. Every one of the 16 counties in western NC is a population or geographic primary care Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA). In western NC, there is an estimated shortage of 120 primary care providers and at least 20 general surgeons. The number of individuals in the region with behavioral health problems continues to grow; an estimated 16% of adults have a behavioral health diagnosis, and the region has a suicide rate significantly higher than national benchmarks. Access to effective health care, a healthy workforce, and lower overall health care costs are key factors to reinvigorate a positive small business and growth environment in the region.

“Decentralizing health education to areas of need not only increases the number of primary care physicians, OB GYN doctors, surgeons and pharmacists in rural areas, it also creates professional jobs and secures the health of communities,” said MAHEC President and CEO Jeffrey E. Heck, MD. “Without access to good health care, businesses are reluctant to locate in those communities. The creation of a robust academic health center in western NC will change the future of our part of the state.” Heck continued, “Communities such as Chapel Hill and Durham that have a strong presence of higher education and an academic health center create deep and broad economic prosperity. Western NC now has that possibility. We thank Senator Apodaca for his vision and determination and we are looking forward to beginning the work to make this vision a reality.”

MAHEC is a model of success in the North Carolina AHEC system. For more than 40 years, MAHEC has trained physicians, pharmacists, and dentists for western NC. Currently, there are more than 300 faculty and graduate physicians practicing in western NC, and every county has been a beneficiary of MAHEC’s training programs. MAHEC hosts residency programs in family medicine in Asheville and Hendersonville and an OB/GYN residency in Asheville. There is also a branch campus of the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine based at MAHEC that has quickly gained national attention for its innovative curriculum. The Center for Advanced Dental Training and fellowship programs in Geriatric Medicine, Hospice and Palliative Medicine, and Sports Medicine produce specialized dentists and physicians for the region. MAHEC also provides continuing education programs for all health professions and our community at large for more than 10,000 participants every year.