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Health access survey finds ‘2 Arizonas’

Arizona ranks ninth for the most Health Professional Shortage Areas, and the Health Resources and Services Administration has designated the state a medically underserved region.

An NAU survey dives more deeply into the state’s unmet needs.

The university calls it a tale of ‘two Arizonas’: Maricopa County, where 21% of respondents say an increased focus on health care access is needed, and everywhere else, where that number nearly doubles.

NAU President Jose Luis Cruz Rivera said he was surprised at the vast differences among the urgent needs expressed by the rural counties.

“That really threw a challenge at us at NAU, because it requires a differentiated approach to academic programming throughout the state, and that is something that we're working to fulfill,” he said.

The survey also underlined the need for affordable education tailored to those needs.

“That, if a particular region has a need for more physical therapists, physical therapy programs be accessible to that population,” he said.

The university’s 20 sites statewide will focus on needs identified by the survey. They include programs to educate nurses, physical and occupational therapists, physician assistants, dental hygienists and mental health practitioners.

“One of the areas where we have placed a lot of emphasis on is on school counselors and, in the past year, we have doubled the number of school counselors in the school counseling program,” said Cruz Rivera.

Because many allied health professional programs require practicums or clinical placements, they often offer faster placement closer to home. For some, serving their home communities is a career prerequisite.

Moreover, studies show healthcare services are often most effective when offered by a member of the community.

“To the extent that we can meet students where they are and provide them access to these types of academic programs, support them through graduation, then there is a very good likelihood that they will stay and serve their communities,” said Cruz Rivera.

He added that he’s also seen a rise in calls in Arizona and nationwide for health professionals with certain cultural competencies, such as bilingual nurses who speak Spanish.

Nicholas Gerbis joined KJZZ’s Arizona Science Desk in 2016. A longtime science, health and technology journalist and editor, his extensive background in related nonprofit and science communications inform his reporting on Earth and space sciences, neuroscience and behavioral health, and bioscience/biotechnology.Apart from travel and three years in Delaware spent earning his master’s degree in physical geography (climatology), Gerbis has spent most of his life in Arizona. He also holds a master’s degree in journalism and mass communication from Arizona State University’s Cronkite School and a bachelor’s degree in geography (climatology/meteorology), also from ASU.Gerbis briefly “retired in reverse” and moved from Arizona to Wisconsin, where he taught science history and science-fiction film courses at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He is glad to be back in the Valley and enjoys contributing to KJZZ’s Untold Arizona series.During the COVID-19 pandemic, Gerbis focused almost solely on coronavirus-related stories and analysis. In addition to reporting on the course of the disease and related research, he delved into deeper questions, such as the impact of shutdowns on science and medicine, the roots of vaccine reluctance and the policies that exacerbated the virus’s impact, particularly on vulnerable populations.