Virtual visits

This is a sidebar that accompanied the May 1 cover story, “Is there a doctor in the hills? The rigors and rewards of rural health care” by staff reporter Caitlin Byrd.

Dr. Steve North, founder and president of the Center for Rural Health Innovation, is building relationships with patients even when he’s not physically present.

Telemedicine, says North, can help deliver care to rural populations. It can also attract students who might later return to practice medicine in these areas. To achieve those goals, the Bakersville-based nonprofit has developed two programs: MY Health-e-Schools and Homegrown Healthcare.

Thanks to high-definition video conferencing and specially designed stethoscopes and cameras, North explains, parents no longer have to take time off from work or pull their child out of school for routine doctors’ appointments. Operating out of school-based health centers staffed by nurse practitioners, the MY Health-e-Schools program serves 2,600 students and faculty members in the Mitchell and Yancey County school systems.

“If we can see somebody at their school for 15 minutes for a cold, they don’t end up at their doctor at the end of the day, or the emergency room, for something that’s not an emergency,” says North.

A $500,000 federal grant is bringing fiber optic Internet access to Mitchell and Yancey counties. With that in mind, North wants to take the telehealth concept into people’s homes.

“We have to figure out how do we, as a community, use that to try to reduce hospital admissions, to try to provide patients with the ability to be evaluated and managed without leaving their house?” North says.

Meanwhile, to help address the physician shortage, the nonprofit will soon launch its social-media-based Homegrown Healthcare program. “Whether they’re interested in physical therapy, nursing or surgery, students can connect with each other at a school level, and then also with rural providers who are practicing in our area, and have a conversation,” he explains.

“The No. 1 indicator that somebody’s going to practice in a rural area, regardless of their health profession, is having grown up in a rural area.”

Ultimately, says North, these programs aim to improve access to medical services in distant rural communities. “Sometimes, just getting a cast on at the right time is hard if you don’t have adequate health insurance.” — Caitlin Byrd

To watch a video about the Center for Rural Health Innovation’s MY Health-E-Schools program, click below:

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