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.”