More than 700,000 residents live in rural areas of South Carolina. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, all but one county is considered a full or partial health professions shortage area. With residents in need of health and behavioral health care access, the College of Social Work is working to help prepare students to work with people living in rural and underserved areas.
Since 2019, the college has teamed up with the South Carolina Area Health Education Consortium to provide 17 Master of Social Work students with the opportunity to participate in their AHEC Scholars program. According to Jennifer Bailey, associate program director for education and evaluation at South Carolina AHEC, the scholars program provides an innovative approach to improving the health of the state by utilizing one of the greatest assets - the future health profession workforce.
Through various educational activities, AHEC Scholars learn about practice transformation, telehealth, quality improvement, and social determinants of health to prepare them to address South Carolina’s unique challenges and strengths. Bailey also serves as part of the AHEC Scholars faculty.
“I enjoy meeting future health professionals and learning about them and why they want to work with rural and underserved populations,” Bailey says. “They bring me a little bit of optimism about the future of health care in South Carolina.”
Teri Browne, associate dean for faculty and research, is one of five South Carolina AHEC Scholars faculty from the University of South Carolina. She is most impressed at the dedication of AHEC Scholars to improving their training and seeking mentoring to work on interdisciplinary teams for rural and underserved populations.
“The AHEC Scholars program requires students to do 80 hours of didactic (instruction) and experiential training on top of their MSW curriculum,” Browne says. “Students who choose to participate in the program are committed to getting this extra training to be good social workers.”
MSW student Emily VanWiel is in her second year in the program and one of eight AHEC scholars graduating this year. The Iowa native credits the program with providing her access to research and webinars that have allowed her to gain knowledge in specialized areas. She has also completed assessments and evaluations and observed interdisciplinary teamwork with patients.
“I appreciate the variety of learning modules,” VanWiel says. “During my semester with palliative care, I watched webinars about hospice and end of life care that were useful to my practice. The AHEC Scholars program has exposed me to more specialties and areas of social work to make me a better practitioner.”
Interprofessional education and emerging health issues are two of the core topics of the program. According to VanWiel, topics such as telehealth, motivational interviewing, and end of life care have been beneficial for her current field placement at Prisma Health.
“They make sure seminars represent current trends in health care to transcend my experience,” VanWiel says. “When I entered my rotation in palliative care and joined their interdisciplinary team, I already had experience working with students of other disciplines. I felt more confident working with other professionals, and it made me more comfortable in my role as a social worker in a medical setting.”
According to Browne, interprofessional education and training is essential for social work and other health and behavioral health students because real-world practice is interdisciplinary, and students need to have the skills to work with other professions. Social workers are often part of larger teams and work with others in health sciences disciplines.
“Students need to know their role on interdisciplinary teams, what they can do as social workers to improve client and community outcomes, and how to work with and communicate with other professions,” Browne says. “The AHEC Scholars program is an excellent way to build the skills needed to work best with other professions.”
MSW student Chidera Anumudu is also in her second year of the program. And like VanWiel, she is also a Rural Interprofessional Behavioral Health Scholar. She wanted to apply to the AHEC program because it was an opportunity to expand her knowledge.
“I have learned about various topics in health care, including those related to my graduate studies,” Anumudu says. “Some of the topics expand on what I have already learned, but I have also learned about other field areas, such as women’s health.”
Anumudu’s field placements have also been valuable experiences by providing her with insights into the macro (large scale) and clinical sides of social work.
“My macro social work placement put into practice the social work core class of organizations and communities,” Anumudu says. “My current internship is helping me gain the clinical skills needed to practice as an adolescent therapist. It’s also expanded my knowledge on our direct practice core classes and interventions courses.”
Even though Anumudu does not plan to practice in a rural setting, the knowledge she has gained on rural practice has been valuable, especially since more than 55 million Americans live in rural areas.
“It is helpful to learn about rural practice because it can help me to better understand my future clients who may come these areas,” Anumudu says. “This program has helped prepare me to work with all types of clients.”
Applications for the AHEC Scholars program are accepted in the fall, spring and summer of each year. The application deadline for the next cohort is Friday, May 14.
“If you are considering, apply,” Bailey says. “The best part of this program is the support and networking available not only from peers, but from faculty and healthcare leaders around South Carolina.”