Tuesday, December 28, 2004
Project will put more doctors in rural clinics
The osteopathic college in Blacksburg will send doctors and students to work in Smyth County and elsewhere.
Beginning in mid-January, one doctor and four students will spend every Friday treating patients in the Smyth County Free Clinic as part of a pilot program funded by the college and the Smyth County Community Foundation. The clinic, which is in Marion, primarily serves uninsured and under-insured patients, including children. Organizers said the program will provide clinic patients with continuity of care while helping expose the aspiring doctors to the health care needs of rural communities.
If the Smyth County pilot program is successful, administrators at the Edward Via Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine hope to replicate the program at free clinics in Christiansburg, Pulaski, Narrows, Roanoke and elsewhere.
"Our mission is to improve health care for rural and underserved Appalachia," Dr. Jan Willcox, the college's associate dean of clinical, academic and research affairs, said. "We recruit students from the region ... so it's a perfect fit for us to have an opportunity to make a difference in the communities that are within our target area."
The Smyth County Free Clinic has served more than 2,400 patients this year. The clinic operates five days a week and relies heavily on a cadre of local doctors who volunteer an hour or two of their time whenever possible, said Mel Leaman, the clinic's director.
Many times, the local physicians agree to see patients at their offices rather than in the clinic, he said. The program with the osteopathic college will allow the clinic's nurse practitioners toschedule appointments on Fridays for patients who need a follow-up visit with a doctor or additional care.
That is key to providing continuity to patients, many of whom do not always receive regular health care, Leaman said.
"We feel it's a great opportunity for us, plus for the community and the region," he said. Leaman added that he hopes the program could persuade some of students to open up practices in rural Southwest Virginia, which is one of the main missions of the college.
The Smyth County Community Foundation donated $100,000 to the project for the first year, with the possibility of additional funding for future years. The college will contribute another $75,000 or so for the first year.
Dr. Paula Scariati, an assistant professor and chairwoman of preventative medicine at the college, said the program's aims are to increase access to care in far Southwest Virginia as well as to provide longer-term care to those who need it. Scariati said she also hopes to increase the focus on preventive care in the clinic and to collect more information about environmental health in the region.
"We're trying to capture the people who fall through the cracks, that aren't eligible for the free clinics but aren't eligible for something else," Scariati said.
Dr. Dixie Tooke-Rawlins, dean of the college, said she hopes that the program will help students appreciate the experience of providing health care to a sector of society that cannot afford it.
"These are the patients who need the care the most oftentimes," Tooke-Rawlins said.
The Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine is a private institution with research and operating agreements with Virginia Tech. The school enrolled its first class of students in August 2003.