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.