Increased access to insurance under the Affordable Care Act will increase demands for clinical services in community health centers (CHCs). CHCs also have an increasingly important educational role to train clinicians who will remain to practice in community clinics. CHCs and Area Health Education Centers (AHECs) are logical partners to prepare the health workforce for the future. Both are sponsored by the Health Resources and Services Administration, and they share a mission to improve quality of care in medically underserved communities. AHECs emphasize the educational side of the mission, and CHCs the service side. Building stronger partnerships between them can facilitate a balance between education and service needs.
From 2004 to 2011, the California Statewide AHEC program and its 12 community AHECs (centers) reorganized to align training with CHC workforce priorities. Eight centers merged into CHC consortia; others established close partnerships with CHCs in their respective regions. The authors discuss issues considered and approaches taken to make these changes. Collaborative innovative processes with program leadership, staff, and center directors revised the program mission, developed common training objectives with an evaluation plan, and defined organizational, functional, and impact characteristics for successful AHECs in California. During this planning, centers gained confidence as educational arms for the safety net and began collaborations with statewide programs as well as among themselves. The AHEC reorganization and the processes used to develop, strengthen, and identify standards for centers forged the development of new partnerships and established academic–community trust in planning and implementing programs with CHCs.