By Bill Knief
Juliana Anastasoff has been blasting in and out of her office just down the hall from me in the old administration building on Civic Plaza Drive for months now, and I realized that I knew next to nothing about what she was up to. That’s not unusual; it seems every time I think I’m getting a handle on what our community college is all about, a whole new dimension turns up. We talked for a few minutes during a pause between meetings last week and I found out she is the Coordinator of the Northern Health Extension Rural Office of UNM Health Sciences Center, she currently lives in Penasco and is “outposted” at UNM-Taos.
I asked Anastasoff what all that meant, and she said she often feels that her job “is a cross between a dating service and a Swiss army knife. Sometimes I’m arranging the date—making a connection between a need here and resources somewhere else—and sometimes I grab the toolbox out of the back of my truck and get busy.”
“I’m a main campus employee,” she explained. “I work for the Health Sciences Center within the office of the Vice President for Community Health—the point of contact for all of the departments and programs in the Health Sciences Center that are involved in community engagement. I’m employed by Health Sciences and I’m here to serve the communities, so the communities do not pay a fee for my services.
“The first part of my job involves health conditions. What I try to do is work with northern New Mexico community partners around whatever their health goals and objectives are. I either provide technical assistance to those efforts or I may be a liaison to resources at main campus that can provide the expertise a community needs. In Taos County some of the important priorities are around teen pregnancies, diabetes and access to health care, so I work with community groups around those issues. I might come to the table with expertise or I might go down to main campus and say I need a health economist to help us understand how adding one physician would expand the economy in a small community, for example.
“We have a lot of health disparities in northern New Mexico. A health disparity is when you have a different rate of disease or a different rate of access or a different rate of health conditions than the state or national average.
“The second aspect is working on the social determinants of health, which are all the things we live with that impact our health. Things like the economy, educational attainment, environmental factors, our schools, access to health care or being medically underserved. The other night Secretary of Health Dr. Alfredo Vigil said (at the UNM-Taos graduation ceremony) that educational attainment is probably the single greatest indicator of health. Retention and academic achievement are huge parts of the health picture in New Mexico.
“Our third responsibility is to create a health professions pipeline. Thirty-two out of 33 counties in New Mexico are federally designated health profession shortage areas. There is a direct link between whether we have enough professionals to serve a community and the health of that community. So we’re very interested in talking with parents about dreaming their children’s future, and talking to middle and high school students about different health professions. There are hundreds and hundreds of health professions and most people are only aware of one or two—a doctor or nurse, perhaps. We need a workforce that is culturally competent, that knows and loves our communities and is committed to being here and serving here.”
“This is an excellent time for health professionals. It’s never too late or too early to think about a career in health care. Our partnership with branch campuses is really important in terms of creating educational ladders and career pathways.
“We use the example of the Agricultural Extension Service throughout New Mexico as an excellent model for how you should work with communities and build trust. We have enormous resources, we have enormous smarts, we have enormous research capacity—how do we tie our successes in the Health Sciences Center to health improvement in the rest of the state? That’s the thinking behind this model of health extension and what that would look like for the nation.”