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Program Aims to Build a Healthcare Workforce in Rural and Underserved Areas

According to the South Dakota Department of Health, 47 of South Dakota's 66 counties are classified as a medically underserved area or population.

Photo of Susan Anderson. Susan M. Anderson, M.D., F.A.A.F.P. Chair and Professor, Department of Family Medicine, USD Sanford School of Medicine.

If you live in a small town or rural area you understand that there is no taking for granted the availability of quality health care. Though dedicated physicians and other health care professionals continue to serve South Dakota’s remote and rural places, the need for an ongoing presence of health care professionals continues to be a challenge for many of South Dakota’s smaller communities.

It is a significant mission of the University of South Dakota Sanford School of Medicine to supply physicians to our state’s rural places, and the university and its medical school provide leadership, funding and momentum to several programs that accomplish that objective. The medical school and the university’s division of health affairs also sponsor what are called “pipeline” programs that prepare young South Dakotans to pursue careers in a variety of health professions. These programs also encourage aspiring health professionals to practice in the state’s underserved areas.  

One program worth noting is called the South Dakota Area Health Education Center, or AHEC.  

Although the program was created in 1971 to serve rural communities and students from middle school to college, it has recently undergone strategic revisions and fine-tuning that now emphasizes boosting the educational experiences of post-secondary students enrolled in health care professional programs, such as physical and occupational therapies, physician assistant, social work, addiction studies, dental hygiene, and others.  The AHEC program will provide advanced educational and clinical opportunities for those students, with an emphasis on connecting them to the state’s smaller communities and careers in rural health care. Partners in this effort include health institutions, communities and community leaders, and health care professionals.

“We are now recruiting our first group of student scholars to participate in the AHEC Scholar program,” explained Dr. Susan Anderson, AHEC’s statewide program director and department chair of Family Medicine at the University of South Dakota Sanford School of Medicine. “These selected students will benefit from innovative and interdisciplinary learning options to prepare them for successful careers in health care. The skills and experience they gain because they participate in the AHEC program will give them career advantages.”

South Dakota's AHEC program will offer student scholars a dynamic blend of academic and clinical experiences, with a focus on the following topics and themes: cultural competency, behavioral health, social determinants of health, patient-centered practice, team-based care giving, and current and emerging health issues. Students will engage in extended, rigorous clinical sessions in small communities.

“AHEC scholar students will become excellent health care professionals because of their experiences with this program.  That means they will better serve patients and communities,” added Anderson.

If you would like to learn more about the AHEC program –whether you’re a student, community leader or health care professional - please visit Yankton Rural AHEC or Northeast South Dakota AHEC.


USD's Sanford School of Medicine is nationally known for excellence. With its award-winning curriculum, the school prepares medical students to practice in all fields of medicine and is particularly recognized and ranked for its reputation in family medicine and rural medicine. In addition to the M.D., it offers graduate degrees in basic biomedical science, sustains a vibrant and forward-looking research agenda, and is home to the interdisciplinary Center for Brain and Behavioral Research.


Founded in 1862 and the first university in the Dakotas, the University of South Dakota is the only public liberal arts university in the state, with 202 undergraduate and 84 graduate programs in the College of Arts & Sciences, School of Education, Knudson School of Law, Sanford School of Medicine, School of Health Sciences, Beacom School of Business and College of Fine Arts. With an enrollment of nearly 10,000 students and more than 400 faculty, USD has a 16:1 student/faculty ratio, and it ranks among the best in academics and affordability. USD’s 18 athletic programs compete at the NCAA Division I level.


Hanna DeLange
USD News