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The Rural Immersion Institute of the North: Inspiring Future Rural Providers

Thursday, October 06, 2016   (0 Comments)
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Gloria Burnett, MS, Director, Alaska's AHEC Program


Alaska, the Last Frontier. Many people from around the world are intrigued by the uncharted beauty of the far north. The cultural experiences, diverse landscape, and unique wildlife make Alaska a “must see” place on bucket lists. People from all walks of life are smitten by the adventure waiting for them in the Last Frontier. Yet the same factors that bring eager tourists here to explore also create a harsh environment for permanent residents and a slew of workforce recruitment and retention challenges that trump those of the Lower 48.


The Alaska Area Health Education Centers (AHEC) program provides a pathway for students to prepare for and enter into healthcare careers, leading them into the workforce and supporting their continued development. The federally funded AHEC program that began in 1971 spans the nation with 55 programs and 231 centers. The Alaska AHEC has been in place since 2005, serving as a “Grow Our Own” program enticing Alaskans to pursue career pathways in healthcare. The AHEC aims to achieve this goal three ways:


1. Engage Alaskans of all ages into healthcare career training

2. Train Alaskans enrolled in healthcare programs of study by supporting clinical experiences in rural Alaska

3.  Retain Alaskans as rural providers by increasing access to continuing education opportunities


In 2013, the Alaska AHEC began exploring opportunities for social enterprise. Facing continued budget cuts and increasing workforce needs, the AHEC needed to focus on program income and diversified funding streams. Each year, dozens of students from the Lower 48 contacted the Alaska AHEC program inquiring about rural clinical opportunities in the Alaska bush. Over time, loss of funding forced the AHEC to provide support mostly to Alaskan students, or those with strong ties to Alaska. In turn, students from the Lower 48 were frequently turned away. As the program explored potential sources of revenue, the idea to capitalize on the market of students interested in experiencing rural healthcare in Alaska came to the surface. The Rural Immersion Institute of the North (RIIN) was born… a simple idea melding together the wonders of Alaska and the realities of rural healthcare practice to inspire a generation of future providers dedicated to practicing in America’s neediest communities.


The program was developed over the course of three years and launched in June 2016. The experience is open to undergraduate juniors and seniors, gap year students and professionals returning to graduate school including, but not limited to, the following areas of study:

  • Medicine
  • Psychiatry
  • Dentistry  
  • Pharmacy
  • Chiropractic
  • Nurse Practitioner
  • Physician Assistant
  • Psychology
  • Social Work
  • Speech Language Pathology
  • Occupational Therapy
  • Physical Therapy  
  • Public Health
  • Healthcare Administration


Students take part in a one-of-a-kind experience traveling to some of the most remote communities in the United States in order to walk in the shoes of healthcare providers in the Last Frontier. The RIIN program provides students with access to a safe yet culturally diverse healthcare landscape without leaving the country. The AHEC program aims to strengthen the healthcare workforce in rural and underserved communities. RIIN provides students with early exposure to rural practice, offering the perfect backdrop to entice future practitioners to the neediest communities in our country.



14 participants flew into Anchorage, AK with limited expectations, knowing they were the first to take part in RIIN, they were excited and ready for adventure. By the end of the 3-week experience, the participants left with new friendships, inspiration and knowledge, as one student shared, “RIIN gave me the experience of a lifetime, something I will never forget.”




During the orientation week in Anchorage, participants were provided with a foundation of Alaska’s healthcare system by exploring the state’s healthcare center and touring major facilities like Southcentral Foundation, Providence Alaska Medical Center, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and Alaska Psychiatric Institute. Students took part in hands-on experiences including the University of Alaska Anchorage Gross Anatomy Cadaver Lab and Interprofessional Simulation Lab. Students also experienced Alaska firsthand with hiking tours and visits to the Alaska Native Heritage Center.



An aspiring Physician Assistant explained, “I was put in situations on multiple occasions where I saw firsthand experiences of the limitations of rural medicine.”




Following this week of intensive preparation, the students ventured out to a rural clinical sites including: Bethel, Soldotna, Barrow, Cordova, Ketchikan, Petersburg, Seldovia, and Fort Yukon. The “rural week” was packed with job shadowing and community based immersion experiences including health clinics, emergency rooms, rehabilitation, tribal health, behavioral health and hospital settings. Overall, the pilot program was deemed a great success with preliminary participant evaluations exceeding programmatic expectations.


A Pre-Dental student who spent her rural week in Alaska reminisced about her time there, “I was able to make an atikluk (traditional Inupiaq attire) and try maktak (whale blubber) My favorite part of the rural week was shadowing at the dental clinic! Everyone there was so nice and helpful, I also feel like I learned a lot about the problems of rural dental care present in Alaska.”




· 77% of participants reported RIIN increased their interest in practicing in a rural or underserved community.

· 82% of participants reported RIIN increased their interest to practice in Alaska.

· 100% of participants reported RIIN increased their confidence in their ability to provide culturally competent care.

· 100% of participants reported an increase of knowledge regarding Alaska Native cultures.

·  92% of participants reported an increased understanding of Interprofessional Practice.


A Healthcare Administration student who spent his rural week in Cordova shared his experiences, “I shadowed almost every department in the hospital. I was involved in the some of the tasks that the CEO did. This experience gave me a very broad understanding of being an administrator in a small community. I felt like I got a sense of how the hospital functioned and the culture of the place. The highlight of my week was being able to sit in on a board meeting and have data that I prepared be presented to the board. This will be a huge part of my future job and being able to experience it now was incredible.”



For more information about the RIIN program, contact Alaska AHEC Program Director Gloria Burnett gburnett3@alaska.edu or visit our website: www.bit.ly/AKAHEC



Accepting Applications for the 2017 RIIN Program through October 31st. To Apply: bit.ly/2017RIINApplication

Click here for a PDF Brochure



NWRPCA welcomes and regularly publishes white papers and articles submitted by members, partners and associates with subject matter expertise. The appearance of any guest publication in our Health Center News database represents the views of the author and does not constitute endorsement by NWRPCA of the stated opinions or perspectives, nor does it suggest endorsement of the contributor's products or services.


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