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The Daily Tar Heel

Blue Cross N.C. partners with UNC Medicine to focus attention on rural medical care


Photo of Alyssa Zamierowski, courtesy of her

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina announced last week the company will invest $800,000 in a new program within UNC’s School of Medicine aimed at improving access to primary care in Rockingham County. 

In a press release, BCBSNC said in addition to increasing primary care access within a rural community, the new Primary Care Rural Advancement Program would provide “multidisciplinary opportunities” to prepare medical, nursing and pharmacy students, as well as students in other medical professions to serve rural areas. Additionally, the press release stated the program would “recruit more residents to enter health care professions.” 

Of BCBSNC’s larger $50 million community health initiatives investment in various organizations and programs across the state, $15 million is targeted at primary care.

“In North Carolina, 70 of our 80 rural counties are actually classified as medical deserts because of their lack of primary care,” said BCBSNC spokesperson Austin Vevurka. “Increasing the number of primary care doctors, especially in rural areas, like Rockingham County and the surrounding counties, helps make health care more affordable for everyone across the board and improves quality because you have a primary care doctor overseeing your care.” 

Rockingham County has the lowest rate of primary care physicians per 10,000 residents, according to the 2016 Rockingham County Community Health Assessment Report, with the county average at 4.7 and the statewide average at 7.6. 

Dr. Cristy Page, chairperson of the Department of Family Medicine, said being a health care provider in rural communities has its own challenges, particularly in Rockingham County, where she said there are significant health disparities.

“There are higher rates of heart disease and diabetes and certain lung diseases and stroke compared with other counties in our state,” Page said. “By investing in primary care, we’re able to focus on prevention, and focus on people staying healthy, and addressing those chronic diseases before they become significant and life-threatening.”

Page said the program also aims to provide support to rural health care physicians. In particular, she cited the UNC Physicians Network’s tele-behavioral health care initiative as a means to improve the quality of care for residents in rural communities. 

“A rural provider might be seeing a patient and they’re faced with a potential behavioral health crisis and need help to guide them,” Page said. “Instead of necessarily sending them to the hospital or leaving that not dealt with appropriately, they can have the opportunity to use telemedicine to access that behavioral health specialist to guide them through what needs to be done and make sure that the patient gets what they need.”

Page said the Primary Care Rural Advancement Program will engage and prepare county residents to enter medical professions, develop rural interprofessional teaching practices to provide additional training for future health professionals and prepare practices and providers in the county to potentially serve as larger-scale workforce training sites in the future. 

“The longer-term impact is really focused on the pipeline of health professionals from Rockingham County,” Page said.

Ideally, Page said, the health care providers would return to Rockingham County after undergoing training there. 

“We know that people are more likely to serve in rural areas if they come from rural areas,” Page said.

Dr. Kyle Melvin is a first-year resident at the UNC Department of Family Medicine and a participant of the Fully Integrated Readiness for Service Training program through the UNC School of Medicine, an accelerated three-year medical school track targeted at students who want to work with underserved populations.

Earlier this year, Melvin and Catherine Coe, an assistant professor within the Department of Family Medicine, founded the UNC Family Medicine Summer Academy. The academy is aimed at exposing recent high school graduates from rural areas in North Carolina to medicine and health care professions. Melvin is from Beaver Dam, a rural community in Cumberland County and said he hopes to have more students participate in the program from Rockingham County.

“What we see is that folks from rural areas aren’t necessarily getting into medical professional schools, like medical school or dental school or P.T. school, at the same rate as their urban counterparts,” Melvin said. “What’s happening is we’re not getting enough folks at the medical school who are wanting to go into rural, underserved care so our hope is that we foster these kids over their college career and help them grow into really good medical school and medical professions school applicants.”

Melvin, who recently visited Rockingham, said he observed how well one primary care physician knew his patients, something he hopes to emulate. 

“For me as an outsider looking in, I would have completely missed the picture, so I think it’s just really a beautiful thing of having that rural family medicine physician be there for a community,” he said.


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