Community coalition to improve health care

There is a perception that when it comes to health care in Georgia, there are two distinct, and unequal, levels of care when meeting the needs of people. There are the urban areas, such as Atlanta, with numerous access points for doctors, services, and treatment; and rural communities like Lumpkin County, where opportunities for quality health care are more limited.

A community coalition that includes UNG, the Community Helping Place (CHP), county government entities, local nonprofits, and Lumpkin County citizens aims to narrow the gulf between these two areas with help from a two-phase grant from the Healthcare Georgia Foundation.

The Healthcare Georgia Foundation is a statewide private foundation whose mission is to advance the health of all Georgians and expand access to affordable, quality health care for underserved communities and individuals. In Lumpkin County, there are some concerning statistics:

  • Lumpkin has one of the highest resident-to-physician ratios in the state, 881 persons to one doctor, compared with the state average of 489 residents per physician.
  • There are fewer than 30 private doctors in the county, with no obstetrics services.
  • The 49-bed Chestatee Regional Hospital is the only hospital in Lumpkin County. The hospital had a total of 1,008 admissions, with 10,129 patients visiting the hospital’s emergency room, in 2016.

The Foundation introduced The Two Georgias Initiative in October 2016 and provided grant opportunities for rural counties with populations of less than 35,000 residents to address health care needs in their specific communities. The first phase of the initiative rolled out in July 2017, with grants totaling $770,000 to 11 statewide community health partnerships to develop plans next year for increased funding in 2018 based on each community’s health care findings.

Dr. Robert Powers, associate professor and director of research for UNG’s College of Health Sciences and Professions, was the grant writer and assists in community planning for the $65,000 grant to study health care needs in Lumpkin County. The UNG contingent also includes Dr. Andy Novobilski, associate provost and chief research officer, Dr. Teresa Conner-Kerr, dean and professor at the College of Health Sciences and Professions, and Dr. Pamela Elfenbein, professor of human services and sociology, who serves as an outside consultant.

“UNG will be in a partnership role with the city and county governments, local merchants, charitable organizations, and chambers of commerce,” Powers said. “That gives the university the opportunity to share in addressing the needs of the community in which we serve.”

The grant is administered through CHP, a nonprofit dedicated to assisting those in need who live in Lumpkin County, providing free medical and dental services, food, clothing, and emergency assistance. Jessica Dudley, CHP’s executive director, will head local leadership through planning, development and execution of the initiative.

The CHP clinic’s services include primary care, lab services, medication assistance, and basic dental care to the underprivileged, homeless and working poor who cannot afford medical care. In 2016, it provided more than 1,200 patient visits, nearly 450 lab visits and dispensed more than 700 medications in the Prescription Assistance Program.

Also, CHP has partnered with UNG’s Department of Physical Therapy through its Student-led Therapy and Rehab Clinic, to serve needy Lumpkin residents at no cost, on the Dahlonega Campus.

Powers said once phase-one planning for the Lumpkin initiative is complete and its findings are presented to the Healthcare Georgia Foundation, more grant money, upward of $200,000 a year for the next three to five years, will establish a sustainable, long-term plan to provide better and more widespread health care throughout Lumpkin County.

“UNG will be a source of numerous capabilities during the second phase of this grant,” said Powers. “We will bring all of our expertise in health care, education, business, as well as our students and faculty, as research begins on what the citizens of Lumpkin County need in regards to improved access to quality health care.”