CCHS celebrates milestone anniversary: 50 years of responding to the challenge

November 1, 2022

The College of Community Health Sciences was established at The University of Alabama in 1972 to respond to the acute need in the state for more physicians for the small towns and rural communities that suffered from a serious lack of health care.

CCHS looked to the specialty of family medicine to achieve that goal. Leading the College as its founding and first dean was Dr. William R. Willard, a nationally recognized leader in community and family medicine who came from the University of Kentucky.

“In many ways, this has been the most difficult of the jobs I’ve had … because we were trying to train a new type of doctor, a family physician,” Willard said in a 1979 interview for Point in Question, a UA television production. “But at the same time, I think it may be one of the more rewarding ones because I think we have an opportunity to make a significant impact on an important social problem and that is the health care of the smaller towns and rural areas.”

Since opening its doors five decades ago, CCHS has done just that. The College has educated thousands of medical students and resident physicians, created programs to recruit and mentor rural Alabama high school and college students interested in medicine and who want to practice in their hometowns or similar communities, and added graduate degree programs in population health and community and rural health.

The College has built a community medical practice, University Medical Center, that is now the largest in West Alabama with six locations. Together with its Capstone Hospitalist Group and as operator of the UA Student Health Center and Pharmacy, the College’s medical practice recorded nearly 250,000 patient visits last year.

CCHS biomedical scientists and other researchers are leading breakthroughs in the development of new medications for chronic conditions, as well as solutions to rural health challenges.

“It’s been exciting to watch the College thrive and expand in medical education, patient care and research,” said Dr. Richard Friend, dean of CCHS and a family medicine physician. “Going forward, we are committed to further elevating the distinction of our medical student education and residency, the care of our patients, and the translation of research and discovery to improve the health of Alabama and the Southeast.”

When Willard arrived at UA in the early 1970s, it was to train a new type of doctor – a family physician who “is hopefully trained and will practice in a way that provides continuity of care, that emphasizes prevention, rehabilitation and comprehensive care,” Willard said in the television interview. This contrasts with episodic care, he continued, “where the continuity, the comprehensiveness is not necessarily there. By and large, training programs haven’t been geared to apply this philosophy and this approach to care.”

Willard introduced family medicine, pediatrics, internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, psychiatry, behavioral science and surgery into the College’s curriculum.

The first class of medical students who completed their clinical education at CCHS (third and fourth years of medical school) graduated in 1974. For the education of medical students, the College is a regional campus of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Marinex E. Heersink School of Medicine (formerly the UA School of Medicine). In 1975, the College’s UA Tuscaloosa Family Medicine Residency Program had its first graduate.

As its medical education programs grew, so, too, did the College’s medical practice, which forms the base of a clinical teaching program for medical students and residents. The College’s first clinic, the 30,000-square-foot Family Practice Center, opened in 1975 on University Boulevard across from DCH Regional Medical Center. By 1981, CCHS had 30 faculty and the number of patient visits at the Family Practice Center totaled 26,000, requiring the addition of five double-wide trailers set directly behind the center.

A year later, the Family Practice Center was renamed Capstone Medical Center and work began to expand the facility. More than 7,000 square feet of clinical space was added by 1985, providing new exam rooms, an ob-gyn suite, a minor surgery/procedures room and a new waiting room. By 1993, the number of patient visits totaled 70,000.

A key CCHS initiative during the 1990s was creation of a sequence of programs, the Rural Health Leaders Pipeline, to recruit and nurture high school and college students from rural Alabama who wanted to return home, or to other similar communities, to practice medicine. To date, hundreds of students have participated in these programs and many now practice as physicians and other health-care providers in rural Alabama communities. The College further committed to rural health and outreach by establishing the Institute for Rural Health Research in 2001.

Construction began in 2002 on a new building for the College to provide an optimal environment for teaching, patient care, research and service. The 100,000-square-foot building at its current location at the corner of University Boulevard and Peter Bryce Boulevard opened in 2005 and the medical practice was renamed University Medical Center.

Now, 50 years later, CCHS can demonstrate success in placing doctors in rural communities and small towns, and in improving the health of Alabama.

The College has provided the clinical education years of medical school for 1,047 students, and more than half of these graduates have chosen careers in primary care. CCHS developed the Primary Care Track, the only one of its kind at the UAB Heersink School of Medicine, which prepares medical students to become skilled primary care physicians by utilizing a longitudinal curriculum in the third year of medical education. Students provide continuity of care for patients and learn in different settings across the core disciplines of medicine, a departure from the traditional hospital-based model of discipline-specific rotations.

The Tuscaloosa Family Medicine Residency Program has graduated 527 family medicine physicians; more than half of graduates have remained in Alabama to practice, and about half of those practice in rural communities in the state. In fact, 1 in 7 family medicine physicians practicing in Alabama graduated from the residency. CCHS has also developed fellowships through the residency to provide additional training for family physicians in behavioral health, emergency medicine, geriatrics, hospital medicine, obstetrics, pediatrics and sports medicine – the most fellowship offerings of any institution nationwide.

University Medical Center has grown from a single location to a total of six, with clinics in Tuscaloosa, Northport, Demopolis, Fayette, Carrollton and Livingston. The College recently formed Capstone Hospitalist Group, whose physicians care for hospitalized patients at DCH Regional Medical Center in Tuscaloosa and Northport Medical Center.

The College assumed operations of Brewer-Porch Children’s Center from UA’s College of Arts and Sciences in 2020 and now provides enhanced and expanded behavioral health and education services for children and their families from across the state. In 2021, the UA Student Health Center and Pharmacy merged with University Medical Center and health-care services, including gynecological and women’s health, sports medicine and endocrinology, among others, expanded for University students.

Among its faculty is a team of pre-eminent biomedical sciences researchers with major National Institutes of Health grant funding who are developing novel therapies for immune-inflammatory diseases through drug discovery and drug repurposing that will propel basic sciences and translational research at CCHS.

As CCHS embarks on its sixth decade, it is clear that the goal set in 1972 to place more doctors in the state’s small towns and rural communities is being met, and the College is continuing to fulfill its mission of improving and promoting the health of individuals and communities in rural Alabama and the Southeast region through leadership in medical and health-related education, primary care and population health; the provision of high-quality, accessible health-care services; and research and scholarship.

“CCHS has had successes and we are ready to build on those accomplishments as we move into the next decade,” Friend said.