Access to essential health services is critical for rural communities, especially during a pandemic. Health care not only keeps the local workforce healthy, but often serves as an anchor in the community as an employer.
In the Woodland area of rural Northampton County, healthcare officials had to get creative to make sure that residents did not lose access to primary care when a longtime doctor decided it was time to retire. 90-year-old Dr. John Stanley had served the region for more than 60 years as the one of few primary care physicians in the area.
Through collaboration and quick action, the Roanoke Chowan Community Health Center, Inc. was able to open a new clinic to serve Northampton County in January 2020. The Golden LEAF Board awarded $200,000 in August 2018 to support the renovation of a former bank to serve as a new primary care office and fill the need for local health services.
Not only has the facility survived throughout the pandemic, but the clinic is beating all expectations. The Woodland Primary Care team consists of a medical doctor, a doctor of osteopathic medicine, a family nurse practitioner, a licensed clinical social worker, a licensed practical nurse, a certified nursing assistant, and a front desk manager. This team was dedicated to providing continued care for Dr. Stanley’s patients while growing the number of people served in the Woodland and surrounding areas. Based on initial expectations for demand, the clinic operated three days a week.
The clinic temporarily closed in March 2020, as the pandemic forced many businesses to shut down.
“We were very intentional with our patients,” said Kim Schwartz, Chief Executive Officer of Roanoke Chowan Community Health Center, Inc. “We contacted everyone, so they knew how to reach us. Every patient received a phone call, and if possible, we scheduled a virtual visit.”
Just two months later, the Woodland Primary Care was able to open back up at the end of June 2020 for in-office visits.
“We even ended up adding another day to the schedule,” said Schwartz. “Visits are steadily increasing. Two afternoons a week we have two providers a day with each provider averaging around 12 visits a day. Some visits are virtual, and some are in person.”
The pandemic helped the clinic to get established in the Woodland community. Focusing on preventive treatment, helping patients stay healthy, as well as treating sick patients, the clinic emphasizes health education. It’s a message that has resonated with residents in the community. As of June 2020, the clinic had seen 320 new patients.
“The clinic was there at the right time,” said Schwartz. “I am really pleased with how we are recovering from being closed. The need was great for COVID-19 testing for people who were symptomatic and for treatment for those who tested positive.”
Federal funding from the CARES Act also helped the clinic with financial stability during the uncertainty.
“We were covered under the CARES Act,” said Schwartz. “It took some of the financial pressure off. That gave us the boost we needed to get firmly rooted into the community, proving why we needed to be here and how essential it was to be here.”
Another strategic move was adding a mid-level provider who was bilingual, said Schwartz.
“When we did our community needs assessment of the Woodland community, we discovered that a Spanish speaking provider was a need,” said Schwartz. “A provider that is bilingual has been very helpful. Our Spanish-speaking patients do not have to worry about trying to find a translator. We offer lots of educational information along with a bilingual media packet.”
We will be doing more outreach once it is safe to do so, said Schwartz. The community has a lot of seasonal workers during the summer so the office plans to add an outreach coordinator to help with reaching more seasonal workers this year.
While there have been many uncertainties during the pandemic, one constant was the ability for people from the Woodland community to have their health and wellbeing cared for by the Woodland Primary Care staff.
“We are really here to be there for the people of the Woodland community,” said Schwartz. “We are about preventive care and education. As a health center, we are in it for the long haul.”