Amanda Pears Kelly, BA, joined the Association of Clinicians for the Underserved (ACU) as our new Executive Director in 2020, and continues to guide ACU’s growth and evolution in programs, advocacy, and more. In this interview, she shares her perspective on what makes our organization unique—and what lies ahead in our work to improve the health of people who are underserved and to support the clinicians working to assist them.

Why did you join the Association of Clinicians for the Underserved?

I was (and continue to be) extremely inspired and motivated by ACU’s mission—leading advocacy, clinical, operational, and equity excellence to develop and support clinicians and the healthcare workforce caring for America’s underserved. I was also very drawn to ACU’s deep roots in health equity, in caring for underserved communities, and in bringing together passionate advocates who have dedicated much of their professional lives to raising people up, to giving a voice to those who have far too often been dismissed or disenfranchised.

ACU 25th Anniversary Logo: 25 Years of the Association of Clinicians for the Underserved

This interview is part of ACU’s 25th Anniversary Celebration. Learn more about the celebration and ACU’s continuing work to improve the health of underserved populations and to support the clinicians working with them.

What makes ACU unique?

ACU’s network was founded by members and alumni of the National Health Service Corps—clinicians came together in recognition of the fact that the needs of providers caring for underserved populations was (and is) different than those of other clinicians. This recognition had to do with the complex needs of the patients and communities being served, it had to do with the transdisciplinary nature of ACU’s founders and wider network of clinicians—which continues to this day—and at its core, it had to do with the fierce commitment to achieving health equity and working to eliminate health disparities.

These core tenants of ACU’s founding remain every bit as relevant and vital to our work today. In recent years ACU’s staff and network has taken the organization to new heights, expanding programming to support healthcare workforce recruitment and retention, burnout, and resilience, doubling down on our commitment to health equity, weaving justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion into all that we do, and intensifying our advocacy leading the way to securing historic funding for the National Health Service Corps in 2021.

ACU’s 25-year history involves numerous programs, from health literacy to eye health and vision care initiatives. Then and now, what unites ACU’s work?

Without question, the needs of our members and network are a key element of what unites ACU’s work. We recognize the incredible work that our members and broader network are doing everyday to care for their patients, including the unique challenges they face working in underserved communities. Our approach is to support the healthcare workforce and organizations caring for the underserved—always, in all ways—and our vision, a robust and diverse healthcare workforce to help transform communities to achieve health equity for all, has been and will continue to be the uniting factor in all our work.

ACU recently began a new initiative to prepare National Health Service Corps pipeline participants. Why is this important, and what impact do you hope ACU can make?

Community advocacy and partnerships are critical to addressing social determinants of health. In addition to understanding the local resources available to assist patients, this initiative with the Bureau of Health Workforce will engage NHSC pipeline participants in understanding how to work with community leaders to get at the root cause of issues driving poor health and advocate for systemic changes to maximize impact. Clinicians play a hugely important role in advocating for their patients. As providers, they are ideally positioned to bring awareness to local issues contributing to health disparities which have a ripple effect across the whole community.

Working with underserved populations is both difficult and rewarding. Many patients receiving care at NHSC-approved sites have low incomes, are uninsured or underinsured, and have extremely complex healthcare needs. When clinicians are prepared to address their patients’ complete needs, and when they work in a supportive environment, this work can be extremely rewarding and has led to many clinicians choosing to stay at their service sites long after they’ve met their obligation. We are thrilled to partner with Abt Associates in this important work and look forward to supporting both clinicians, as they do the vital work of caring for the nation’s underserved patients, and communities, as we endeavor to address and put an end to health disparities at their root.

What challenges is the health center workforce facing now, and how is ACU helping clinicians and administrators to meet them?

Unfortunately, the pandemic has exacerbated longstanding healthcare workforce shortage issues and placed unprecedented strain on the nation’s healthcare workforce. ACU’s STAR2 Center exists to support health centers with clinician recruitment and retention—including support, training, and resources to address burnout, resilience, and moral distress. Sadly, the rate of clinician burnout and PTSD has increased dramatically in large part due to the demands of the pandemic. In many cases this has driven members of the healthcare workforce to leave their professions entirely, to take early retirement, or in some cases seek employment with organizations outside underserved communities. ACU works very closely with S/R Primary Care Associations, health centers and other organizations caring for the underserved to develop workforce recruitment and retention plans and to deploy strategies and tactics to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on healthcare workforce.

In addition, ACU has been a leading advocacy voice in support of key federal programs supporting workforce recruitment and retention in underserved communities like the National Health Service Corps, and Teaching Health Centers Program. Finally, in recognition to the severe moral distress, burnout and intense demands being placed on providers throughout the pandemic, ACUs Suicide Safer Care program recently developed a training geared at organization leadership to identify and support providers at risk of suicide. As a nation, we will continue to face severe healthcare workforce shortages, particularly in underserved communities. ACU will continue to lead both advocacy and programming to support the health center workforce with an ultimate goal of achieving our vision of a robust and diverse healthcare workforce to help transform communities and achieve health equity for all.

What does the future hold for ACU?

The exponential growth ACU has seen over the past few years is just the beginning of where the organization can and will go in the future. First and foremost, in the months and years ahead we will continue to build out our programs, services, and advocacy to meet the needs of our members and broader network. We are committed to elevating and driving health equity across our programs, in our advocacy, and in our practices as an organization.

In consideration to the growing challenges with healthcare workforce shortages, as well as healthcare coverage and access for the underserved, ACU will continue to lead advocacy efforts to secure additional funding and resources for critical federal programs like the National Health Service Corps, Teaching Health Centers, GME, Health Centers Program, and many others. Key to ACU’s work going forward will be to collaborate with key stakeholders and partners to lead the ongoing transformation of our nation’s healthcare system, and its healthcare workforce, to achieve true health equity for all.

What does ACU mean to you?

For me, ACU is a professional home for those dedicated to caring for the underserved, to health equity, to growing and improving our nation’s healthcare system, and to transforming underserved communities into thriving communities. Every day I’m inspired and humbled by the incredible healthcare professionals I’m privileged to work with and support. Their commitment to the greater good, their vision for a better and more equitable future, and their tireless dedication to the underserved is ACU’s reason for existence and the heart of our organization.