UGA Addresses Health Care Needs in Rural Georgia
Monday, January 29th, 2018
Christy Abney is a teacher, so when one of her daughters wakes up sick, she needs to get to a doctor as early as possible so she doesn’t miss much of the school day.
Fortunately, the Hawkinsville resident now has Taylor Express Care, which opens at 8 a.m. with medical staff ready to see patients.
“The pediatrician’s office opens at 8, but a lot of times you can’t see the pediatrician before 10,” Abney said. “When they’re sick I have to get them taken care of.”
Before the clinic opened in June 2016, Pulaski County residents had nowhere to go for immediate care except the emergency room at Taylor Regional Healthcare, the local hospital. A Community Health Needs Assessment, or CHNA, facilitated by faculty and students at the University of Georgia showed that the county needed an alternative.
Today, the clinic averages about 15 patients a day and emergency room visits are down almost 23 percent, from nearly 6,000 annually before Taylor Express Care opened to just over 4,600 in the past year.
“It was greatly needed,” said Bailey Lanier, a nurse practitioner on duty during a chilly November morning. “Before you just had the ER, and that was it. We’ve opened doors to people who didn’t have health care, who just didn’t know who to go to.”
Helping with the CHNA, required of all hospitals to receive federal funding, is just one of the many ways that the University of Georgia has helped Pulaski County address critical health care issues, a common problem for rural Georgia communities.
Dr. Skip McDannald Jr., CEO of Taylor Regional Healthcare, is enthusiastic about what UGA’s support through the Archway Partnership has meant for a community hospital trying to expand services.
“We’d be in a mess without them,” McDannald said. “We could never muster the resources ourselves.”
Pulaski County became part of UGA’s Archway Partnership program in 2009. The program, which places UGA faculty in each Archway community, provides the community access to the resources of UGA to address critical locally identified needs and opportunities.
Thirteen Georgia counties have been Archway Partnership communities since the program began in 2005. Partnerships typically last about seven years, with eight communities active at any one time. Needs in the mostly rural counties are similar: jobs, workforce development, infrastructure and health care.
In Pulaski County, residents identified health care as a top priority. Access to urgent care was one specific need; helping health care leaders identify and begin addressing community health challenges, like readmissions and opioid abuse, was another need.
Henry Young, the Kroger Associate Professor in Community Pharmacy in the UGA College of Pharmacy, began working with administrators at Taylor Regional Hospital in 2016 to reduce the number of patients readmitted too soon after they were treated for COPD, pneumonia and congestive heart failure. Recently, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services began reducing Medicare payments for hospitals with excess patient readmissions. After studying the issue, Young identified factors that may help the hospital minimize readmissions.
Young was back in Hawkinsville this year trying to discover what health care professionals could do to battle the latest public health crisis: opioid abuse. He held focus groups there and across the state, bringing together physicians and pharmacists to discuss the issue.
Young’s goal is to develop best practices for health care professionals to use to educate patients and help prevent opioid misuse and addiction in the first place, as well as foster collaboration across disciplines.
A pharmacist who participated in the focus group research indicated that it was helpful to hear from colleagues about how they worked with patients who had opioid prescriptions. “A lot of people just think doctors are involved, and they don’t realize pharmacists are seeing these prescriptions, too,” the pharmacist said. “A lot of people don’t know what they’re taking, why they’re taking it. They don’t understand it. We heard about it from different angles.”
The project has attracted the attention of Lawrence Bryant, a senior program manager with the Georgia Department of Public Health.
“Community-based participatory research is absolutely essential in combating this,” Bryant said. “One of the things I think is important that may not be practiced now is consistency. This is an opportunity to develop a protocol for how information should be transferred and what kind of follow-up needs to happen.”
Young has held or scheduled focus groups in Pulaski, Spalding, Washington, Hart and Candler counties, all Archway communities. He’s also exploring a second hospital readmissions study in Spalding County. His research is trying to shine a light on rural health issues that haven’t been adequately studied.
“What we know from the literature is that in rural areas there are some health care challenges like access to care and services,” he said. “We need to dive in and get a better understanding of those challenges. We want to see what issues physicians and pharmacists are confronted with daily and get a sense of how we can perhaps prevent problems from happening.”
It’s another way, as McDannald said, UGA helps bring communities together to build a healthier state.
“We’ve now joined together as a force,” he said. “We’re functioning the way we should as a community.”