Tom Bacon joined the staff of the North Carolina Area Health Education Centers (AHEC) Program just five years after it was founded.
Now, 35 years later, Bacon has seen AHEC — which started as a partnership between the state and UNC’s medical school — grow into a much larger organization, with nine regional centers across the state.
In 1972 the N.C. General Assembly allocated funding to build three regional medical training programs in Charlotte, Wilmington and Rocky Mount.
“There was recognition in legislative areas that we needed to be changing the way we train medical professionals, and get them out of Chapel Hill and other medical schools,” said Bacon, who is now the program director.
“The idea was, if you train a doctor in Asheville, they’re more likely to stay there,” he said.
Bacon said since its beginning, AHEC has provided North Carolina citizens with medical care they may not have had access to otherwise.
From locally controlled centers scattered from Asheville to Wilmington, AHEC takes medical students and places them in the region their center oversees.
The program also provides continuing health care education for professionals and promotes workforce diversity, Bacon said.
He said the regional centers aim to fulfill local needs.
Marvin Swartz, director of AHEC’s partner office at Duke University, said the regional centers also work to improve the supply of physicians and specialists to rural or undeveloped areas where there may be a shortage of doctors.
“Where there are shortages in particular types of clinics, we do try to bring Duke and sometimes UNC specialists to help in areas like pediatric cardiology or infectious diseases,” Swartz said.
Bacon said when the University’s medical school expanded in the early 1970s, AHEC founders wanted to offer training across the state.
Jane Nester, executive director of the Greensboro regional center, said in an email that more than half of the resident physicians in family, sports or internal medicine stay in the state to practice medicine post-graduation.
“This number is especially important in today’s changing health care environment, where more people will be covered by health care insurance and in need of primary care physicians,” she said.
AHEC also operates UNC Medical Air Operations, which flies University specialists around the state to provide clinics in areas where people may not have access to a specialist, Bacon said.
The service previously flew from Horace Williams Airport in Chapel Hill, but it relocated to Raleigh International Airport after the proposed Carolina North project announced plans to close the airport.
Bacon said the centers have been so successful over the years because of continued support from the General Assembly.
“Each of these (centers) belong to the area that they’re located in,” he said.
“And they have a stake in the local game.”
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