eco school of dental medicine
A fourth-year ECU dental student delivers care to a child during the Community Service Learning Center-Lillington’s Give Kids a Smile Day in February 2017. Most of the CSLCs deliver free care to children who qualify for the annual event. Photo courtesy of ECU School of Dental Medicine.

As part of our mission to meet the state’s health and health workforce needs, especially in rural and underserved populations, NC AHEC provides North Carolina’s health science students with affordable housing while they are off-campus on rotations.

Community-based rotations are important parts of any health science student’s education. Allied health, dental, medicine, nursing, public health, pharmacy, social work students, and more, receive part of their training away from academic centers—in community hospitals, physicians’ offices, rural health centers, public health departments, mental health centers, and other health-related settings. Currently, NC AHEC arranges short-term housing for medical, nurse practitioner, physician assistant, certified nurse midwifery, pharmacy, and dental students so they can complete their community rotations.

NC AHEC facilitates the teaching of these health science students at 1,407 community teaching sites across the state. In 2017-18, the nine regional AHECs provided more than 55,000 nights of student housing, expending over $750,000 in rent and maintenance. The majority of AHEC student housing is provided through rented apartments or AHEC-owned homes and condos, although NC AHEC also utilizes private homeowners, especially in rural areas.

“AHEC student housing is key to our ability to send our students to rural areas for their clinical rotations,” noted Melinda Blazar, MHS, PA-C, director of clinical education and assistant professor of community and family medicine in the Duke University Physician Assistant Program. “This resource allows us to utilize a more expansive network of preceptors [teaching community practitioners] and provides us with better access to sites in a challenging environment.”

The Duke Physician Assistant Program’s mission is to educate caring, competent primary care physician assistants who practice evidence-based medicine, are leaders in the profession, dedicated to their communities, culturally sensitive, and devoted to positive transformation of the health care system. Because of AHEC student housing, “Our students have the opportunity to practice at Duke’s academic centers but also in rural and underserved parts of the state, which fits into our mission of providing experiences in diverse settings,” added Blazar.

On average, Duke has about 180 students enrolled in its physician assistant program. In the second year of the program, the students are in clinical rotations, the bulk of which occur across North Carolina. Physician assistant students from Duke spent 3,615 nights in AHEC housing in 2017-18.

“Students know the housing is part of AHEC,” noted Blazar. Duke’s program coordinators work with AHEC to manage the logistics so students can focus on learning and their clinical experience instead of scrambling to find a place to stay or worrying about how to afford housing. As Blazar put it, “We like to tell our students, ‘Your job is learning; we’ll take care of the logistics.’ We are able to do this because of how seamlessly the AHECs work, how helpful and widespread they are.”

Student housing works a bit differently for the East Carolina University School of Dental Medicine, which enrolled its first class of pre-doctoral students in 2011.

The school’s vision is to educate the next generation of primary care dentists with a focus on serving rural and underserved areas of North Carolina. In order to achieve this, the State of North Carolina funded the ECU School of Dental Medicine in building eight standalone dental facilities, Community Service Learning Centers, in rural and underserved areas of the state—Ahoskie, Brunswick County, Elizabeth City, Davidson County, Lillington, Robeson County, Spruce Pine, and Sylva. Initial plans were for the NC AHEC budget to be increased by the state legislature to cover the costs of the dental students’ housing. However, that increased allocation did not occur, so the dental students must cover the costs of their AHEC housing.

Today, ECU dental students pay for the costs of their housing through an AHEC housing fee allocated over the 11 terms of their enrollment in dental school. Given that the students spend more than half of their fourth year—27 weeks—on their CSLC rotations, the regional AHECs facilitate housing arrangements that are specifically for dental students. Through the AHEC student housing fees, the ECU School of Dental Medicine also provides AHEC with funds to administer the housing. Last year (2017-18) ECU dentistry students spent 10,275 nights in housing administered by NC AHEC.

“Our AHEC partners play a vital role in helping us assure that the students’ housing is appropriate for their needs and makes a positive contribution to their overall experience in the rural and underserved areas of our state,” commented Margaret B. Wilson, DDS, MBA, vice dean and associate dean for student affairs at the ECU School of Dental Medicine. “The housing is an important part of the students’ overall experience. We want them to see the benefits of living in these smaller communities; it gives them the opportunity to connect with people with different health concerns and learn about the population health challenges in different parts of the state. Some students would never experience other parts of the state without these community rotations.”

The eight Community Service Learning Centers are important parts of the communities’ economic development, Wilson said, providing in excess of $1 million in economic impact per site per year. “The centers are staffed by full-time and part-time faculty, residents, fourth-year students, dental hygienists, dental assistants, and business staff who all contribute to the local economy. The fronts of the buildings clearly state ‘ECU School of Dental Medicine,’ a real point of pride for the communities and a great recruitment tool for the program.”

The ECU School of Dental Medicine already has alumni working in rural areas, living testaments to how the school’s efforts in rural and underserved areas of the state are paying off.

“Growing up in Northampton County, I always knew I wanted to return here to practice and that the greatest need was with the underserved,” shared Nicole Beasley, DMD, a 2016 graduate of the ECU School of Dental Medicine. Nicole is now practicing with Rural Health Group in Northampton County. “My time in Ahoskie prepared me for the patient population I now work with.”

Gustavo Gasca, DMD, also graduated from the dental program at ECU in 2016. Gustavo said he grew up as a child of migrant workers in an environment that made going to the dentist and the doctor a privilege. “Having witnessed my parents struggle and having been a Medicaid recipient myself were the biggest motivating factors that led me to want to continue addressing the needs of underserved populations.” Gustavo is now practicing in Burgaw, North Carolina, in Pender County.

Overall, in 2017-18, NC AHEC tracked 17,352 weeks of community rotations at 1,407 sites, housed 1,351 students from more than 60 academic institutions—1,599 individual rotations—in 51 cities across the state.

“While we are, unfortunately, not able to meet every housing request, especially as the demand for student housing continues to grow, NC AHEC student housing is among the largest (if not the largest) student housing system within the National AHEC Organization,” stated Alan Brown, associate director of the NC AHEC Program. “We hear from both public and private schools about their anticipated growth and increased need, and we continue to explore new models for securing additional funding for expanding student housing.”

Visit ncahec.net for more information about NC AHEC student housing and other AHEC services and resources.