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New Mexico State University

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NMSU program helping to address health-provider shortages in N.M.

Thirty-one of 32 counties in New Mexico are considered a HPSA. What's a HPSA?

A HPSA means that 31 of the 32 counties in New Mexico are considered a Health Professional Shortage Area by federal government standards when evaluating how many health professionals per 1,000-population an area should have.

Tasked with improving these daunting numbers is a group of 14 New Mexico State University employees working out of a Santa Fe-styled building, tucked away in the southeastern part of the NMSU campus.

The Southern Area Health Education Center has a "focus to link health science centers, schools of medicine and health professionals with communities where there is a shortage," said Benjamín Jácquez, director of SoAHEC.

"We try to recruit our local workforce. The way we do this is to work with the public schools, for example, middle and high schools to work with the students to help them understand the importance of finishing school and to go to college. If they go to college, we encourage them to consider a career in the health industry," Jácquez said.

If a student graduates and becomes a healthcare professional, there is more of a chance the student will stay in the area he or she's from, thus improving the number of healthcare professionals, in particular, rural areas, Jácquez said.

He explained that new healthcare professionals who are recruited from outside of the area usually don't stick around long.

"What happens is many just complete their commitment to serve in a rural area to pay off student loans and then look for an urban area with more opportunities for them and their families," Jácquez said.

As the presidential candidates argue back and forth about a national health plan, Jácquez's group faces incredible challenges to change the healthcare-professional-shortage equation in New Mexico. Many of the federal programs that offered health professionals incentives to work in rural areas, like New Mexico, have been drastically cut, he said.

"As far as real incentives it's very difficult because of the loss of these programs (incentives) that are being cut at the federal level. There's not much that can be done except keep advocating with your local state and federal legislatures and say, 'Hey, we have a serious problem here. We're having a problem recruiting and retaining health professionals because we are losing all these incentives,'" Jácquez said.

The alternative to the loss of federal programs is for the local communities to step in and try to recruit and retain healthcare professionals by convincing them to move their practice to a rural community.

And within this same breath is where SoAHEC's job becomes so important in developing outreach programs to, maybe not resolve the shortage problem completely, but to alleviate a real dilemma that affects all of New Mexico, Jácquez said.

For more information on SoAHEC's outreach programs, please contact Benjamín Jácquez at (575) 646-3441 Ext. 11 or e-mail him at jacquez@nmsu.edu.