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VCOM and Southwest Virginia AHEC Work Together to Solve Area Healthcare Worker Shortages

High school students gathered in a simulation center room
By Caroline Bennett -

All types of healthcare professionals are in short supply—including doctors, nurses, technicians and home health aides. The reasons for the shortages vary and are often interrelated. They include burnout, changing demographics, difficulty in recruiting and retaining adequate medical personnel, and the rigors of the medical profession. Recognizing those trends and a need to respond, the Virginia General Assembly established the Virginia Health Workforce Development Authority (VHWDA).

In 2023, the Virginia General Assembly assigned the VHWDA the task of addressing these shortages in the Health Workforce Study. The study revealed that if current patterns persist, shortages in nursing, primary care and behavioral health professionals will worsen. As 102 out of Virginia's 133 counties and cities, encompassing 29% of the state's population, meet the federal criteria for designation as Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSAs) in primary care, this issue is critical for our region.

Regional Area Health Education Centers (AHEC), which are administered by the VHWDA, are part of a national effort to address these healthcare professional deficiencies. The centers accomplish this by providing pipeline programs for high school students, Continuing Medical Education (CME) training to current professionals and Community-Based Experiential Training (CBET) opportunities to current healthcare professional students. The SWVA AHEC center also has programs that support current healthcare professionals.

The Southwest Virginia AHEC (SWVA AHEC) is hosted by the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine (VCOM), which provides dollar-for-dollar matching funds for the approximately $120,000 federal grant given to each Virginia regional AHEC. VCOM also offers facilities and support for AHEC programs and events. The center’s service area includes the counties of Alleghany, Bland, Botetourt, Buchanan, Carroll, Craig, Dickenson, Floyd, Giles, Grayson, Lee, Montgomery, Pulaski, Roanoke, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Tazewell, Washington, Wise and Wythe, and the cities of Bristol, Covington, Galax, Norton, Radford, Roanoke and Salem.

Their region is also home to collaborating hospitals, health systems, Community Health Centers (CHCs) or Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC), community colleges and universities that offer health professions career studies, internships, training and job opportunities to AHEC affiliates.

Louann Morrow, the SWVA AHEC center director’s work in the region includes inspiring high school students with outreach pipeline tours and other health careers recruitment programs; hosting health science fairs in medically underserved areas; and running the Summer Enrichment Experience for Youth (SEE) program at VCOM, an invaluable free summer camp for rising high school sophomores through seniors that introduces them to science and healthcare professions.  

We have enhanced the outreach programs that were already in place at VCOM, and their mission to train globally minded, community-focused physicians is a perfect complement to AHEC’s work of engaging and retaining healthcare workers in Southwest Virginia. Their curriculum and focus are on supporting the needs of their students and the communities they live in, and that is why we are here too!

Louann Morrow , Director for Southwest Virginia Rural AHEC

SWVA AHEC’s scholars program more directly addresses workforce needs. The program, which is available to medical students, pharmacists, nurses and other medical practitioners interested in working in rural medicine offers practical, hands-on training, professional mentoring and networking opportunities as well as an annual stipend. SWVA AHEC also offers ten students already enrolled in a nursing program the opportunity to study for Community Health Worker (CHW) certification at no cost. In addition, the center provides CME programs for physicians in the region in collaboration with the Virginia Osteopathic Medicine Association (VOMA) and the Graduate Medical Education Consortium of Southwest Virginia (GMEC).

While healthcare workforce development and retention in Virginia's rural communities will require a multi-faceted effort to address, SWVA AHEC at VCOM plays a vital role in mitigating these challenges by motivating, assisting and equipping healthcare students to return to their hometowns to practice.

For more information on the work of Southwest Virginia AHEC and their programs, please contact or visit

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