Jeff Oxendine thought he wanted to go into public health when he was a student at Cal State Chico in 1982. But he had no idea how to pursue his interest – until he connected with an internship program for underrepresented students. That set him up with a summer internship at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Martinez.
“Prior to being in that program, I didn’t believe it was possible,” Oxendine said. “It opened up tremendous doors for me.”
After graduation he worked in administration at the VA before going to graduate school at UC Berkeley for public health. He is now the Associate Dean of Public Health Practice at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health.
So when funding for the program that set him on his path dried up in the late 1980s, Oxendine and fellow alumni started Health Career Connections, a similar internship program connecting underrepresented undergraduate students like they were to medical professions. For their first decade, the program operated in Northern California on a completely volunteer basis. In 2000, Oxendine found support to expand the program nationwide as a non-profit organization.
“Because the need for increasing diversity in health professions was greater than ever,” Oxendine said.
Now, with health-care reforms and the expected influx of newly insured, especially in under-represented areas, Oxendine has expanded again. Health Career Connections now operates nationwide in California, New York, New Jersey, New England and North Carolina.
“I’m American Indian from the Lumbee Indian tribe, so I wanted to operate in a region where my family is from and where my tribe is from,” Oxendine said.
In California, Health Career Connections serves Northern California, Southern California, and due to substantial underserved populations, the Central Valley and Coachella Valley.
Oxendine said they recruit students from underserved populations because they are the most likely to return and serve the underserved in their hometowns.
Students like Joshue Leyva from the Coachella Valley.
“I always knew I wanted to be a doctor,” Leyva said. “In second grade the teacher asked us to draw what we want to do and I’d draw a doctor.”
The third-year pre-med UCLA student wants to work in emergency care or open a family practice in the Coahcella Valley because of the difficulty he and his family have had accessing care.
He still remembers childhood trips when his family would drive two hours to Mexicali, Mexico, to get affordable primary and dental care.
According to the Coachella Valley Healthcare Initiative, there is one physician for every 8,407 residents in the East Valley. The federally recommended ratio — one doctor for every 2,000 residents — calls for four times as many doctors.
In the summer of 2011, Leyva developed a health education resource manual for residents at his internship with the Coachella Valley Healthcare Initiative. The following summer he did a Health Career Connections internship again, this time creating a stroke education manual for patients released after a stroke.
He and a fellow Health Career Connections alumnus developed a free health-screening program they call A Healthier Future. The two travel to local food banks and give talks on stroke, hypertension and diabetes in English and Spanish. Following the talks they screen people’s glucose levels, determine their likelihood of stroke and give them information about local hospitals or clinics. Leyva estimates they’ve now screened more than 800 people.
“It’s been such a rewarding experience,” Leyva said. “I think I learn more from the residents than they do from me.”
During these times of great change in health policy Oxendine said it is also important to increase the diversity of health administrators and policy makers.
“A lot of the people in those roles in our state are going to be eligible for retirement in the near future,” Oxendine said, “we need to create a pipeline for those as well as clinical positions.”
Former Health Career Connections intern Roza Do is pursuing a dual masters degree in city regional planning and public health at UC Berkeley. Do has held internships on practically all aspects of health-care reform. Her first internship was during her undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley.
Health Career Connections set her up at the Integrated Healthcare Association, where she worked on pay for performance initiatives with major stakeholders in the state.
“I was exposed to broader policy and a high level collaborative effort,” Do said, “how major health plans, the Integrated Healthcare Association and medical groups were coming together to shape things statewide.”
After graduation, Pacific Business Group on Health hired her because of her work with them at the Integrated Healthcare Association. A year later, when her dad passed away, the Pacific Business Group on Health was able to get her a job with a sister organization in Los Angeles so she could return home to care for her mother.
Three years ago she returned to graduate school to expand her opportunities and learn about designing healthy communities. She’s done multiple internships during her studies looking at how governments, schools and medical groups are working to improve public health. She connected to all those opportunities through the continued support of Jeff Oxendine and others she met through her involvement with Health Career Connections.
“It’s crazy how much it’s evolved from where I started. I had a really health-care focused view to how we measure health-care quality and improve health-care quality,” Do said. “My heart has always been in health. The population I ultimately want to serve is culturally diverse and vulnerable populations who are at risk.”
Oxendine is particularly concerned about the sustainability of Health Career Connections since the program that launched his career folded. Instead of being dependent on grants, the organizations that host Health Career Connection interns pay their stipends and a fee to keep the program going.
Oxendine said all of the organizations that paid to host interns last year thought it was a good investment.
With more than 2,500 applicants Oxendine said he could place three times the number of interns they do currently if they had more organizations willing to fund internships.
They are also trying to get more funding for organizations that can’t afford to host interns, but desperately need them. This month Oxendine received a $125,000 James Irvine Leadership award from the James Irvine Foundation that will help place interns in underserved areas that can’t afford the program fees themselves.
As health-care reforms evolve and people try to understand the lack of diversity in health professions, Oxendine said, they can’t blame a lack of qualified students.
“No question that there are sufficient numbers of people out there that want to serve their communities,” Oxendine said.
He said often academics and health employers don’t understand the unique skill set that these students bring to their work. Health Career Connections will continue to bridge that gap.
“We’re all about preparing for the next generation of health professionals that are going to serve our state,” Oxendine said.