University Medical Center: Celebrating 45 Years of Caring for West Alabama

When University Medical Center first opened its doors in 1975, it was as the Family Practice Center, a 30,000-square-foot multispecialty medical practice located on University Boulevard, directly across the street from DCH Regional Medical Center.

The vision for the small outpatient clinic was simple: serve as a clinical training ground for family medicine residents and medical students at The University of Alabama College of Community Health Sciences, which operated the center, and provide health care for the local community.

The opening of the Family Practice Center was attended by numerous dignitaries, including Lady Bird Johnson, wife of former President Lyndon B. Johnson. The local newspaper extolled the opening of the new facility, reporting that it was a “great addition to the services offered by the state’s comprehensive University here … and a challenging new asset for Tuscaloosa.”

Forty-five years later, the original vision remains. But the small Family Practice Center has grown and expanded considerably and today is a vital provider of primary health care for the people of West Alabama, and a sought-after destination by residents and medical students seeking to become family medicine and primary care physicians.

Exterior and interior views of the newly built Family Practice Center building.

The Early Years

In the six years after opening, the Family Practice Center had experienced significant growth, with more than 26,000 patient visits in 1981. This required the temporary use of five double-wide trailers set behind the center to accommodate the growing patient volume.

One year later, work began to expand the Family Practice Center by more than 7,000 square feet of clinical space, and a new name was chosen: Capstone Medical Center. Opening in 1985, the expanded facility featured new exam and waiting rooms, a new obstetrics and gynecology suite and a minor surgery and procedures room.

Exterior view of Family Practice Center building.

Exterior view of Capstone Medical Center, formerly Family Practice Center.

The ensuing years were prosperous ones for Capstone Medical Center. The outpatient center was becoming a major force in health-care delivery in the area. In the decade following its expansion, the number of patients served by Capstone Medical Center nearly doubled. In 1985, more than 8,500 patients made 27,320 visits to the clinic. By 1990, more than 11,600 patients made nearly 64,500 office visits. In 1993, the number of patients had risen to more than 13,800 and they made 70,000 office visits.

Services also expanded. Support groups were created for patients with diabetes, and occupational health services and social services were added.

To accommodate the growth, construction began on a new building in 2002 and another new name was chosen: University Medical Center. The new facility would provide an optimal environment for patient care and teaching. Steps were also taken that year to technologically modernize clinical care with the introduction of an electronic medical record, a paperless patient record immediately available to all members of a patient-care team.

Exterior view of newly built University Medical Center building in 2005.

The new 72,000-square-foot University Medical Center opened in 2005, at its current location on the corner of University Boulevard and Peter Bryce Boulevard, providing care in family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, psychiatry and behavioral medicine and sports medicine. There was a walk-in clinic exclusively for UA faculty and staff, and on-site laboratory and x-ray services.

University Medical Center main entrance.

Interior view of University Medical Center’s signature barrel vault ceilings.

A hospitalist service was created by UMC to care for patients at DCH Regional Medical Center in Tuscaloosa. Hospitalists are doctors who practice hospital medicine and work within hospitals, caring for patients from the time they are admitted to the time they are discharged and providing much of the hospital care once handled by patients’ primary care physicians. There are currently 23 hospitalist physicians who practice and care for patients at DCH as part of UMC’s University Hospitalist Group.

Dr. Robert Sheppard (left), associate professor and Hospitalist Fellowship director, sits with Dr. Brant Lehman, assistant professor and director of University Hospitalist Group.

Continued Growth

With a continued need for primary care health services in West Alabama, a second UMC location was added in 2015 in Northport to serve that city and adjacent areas. In 2017, UMC added a permanent location in Demopolis to provide needed family medicine and prenatal care to that city and neighboring counties and communities.

Services were again expanded at UMC to add care in geriatrics, neurology and endocrinology, nutrition services provided by a full-time registered dietitian, travel health services, as well as a clinic exclusively for UA employees that provides mental health care. Evening hours for patient care were added at UMC’s Tuscaloosa location.

Dr. Connie Leeper during a newborn visit at the UMC-Demopolis clinic.

Interior view of UMC-Northport.

UMC in Tuscaloosa (Family Medicine Clinic and Pediatrics Clinic) and UMC-Northport received accreditation from the National Committee on Quality Assurance as Patient-Centered Medical Homes. The recognition acknowledges UMC’s transition to a medical practice that provides care based on quality as well as prevention and wellness, and that keeps patients at the center of care.

Last year, UMC recorded 162,117 patient visits. This included 90,410 patient visits at the three UMC locations (Tuscaloosa, Northport, Demopolis), 13,788 patient visits by UMC physicians at DCH Regional Medical Center, and 57,919 patient visits by University Hospitalist Group physicians at DCH.

“UMC has grown from a single location in Tuscaloosa created to provide clinical education and training to future family medicine and primary-care physicians to multiple locations and outreach programs that provide primary and specialty care where it is needed most,” said Dr. Richard Friend, dean of CCHS.

Continued Outreach

UMC’s expansion hasn’t been limited to brick-and-mortar locations but has also included the provision of direct patient care to areas of West Alabama most in need – rural and medically underserved communities.

Two UMC physicians provide weekly pre-natal and obstetric care in Carrollton in Pickens County, which suffers from a dire shortage of these health-care services. There are plans to increase the number of UMC physicians offering care in Pickens County.

“Our provision of services there became even more critical when Pickens County Medical Center closed this year, leaving the county without a hospital and, as a result, with fewer physicians providing more specialized care,” Friend said.

For nearly a decade, UMC has provided mental health care via telemedicine technology to rural Alabama counties. At times, UMC has also been able to provide diabetes education and asthma education to rural communities via telemedicine.

UMC provides education programs for its patients and members of the West Alabama community on such disease topics as diabetes and high blood pressure, offers guided grocery store tours to help patients learn how to shop to better manage their health conditions, and has developed an app to help patients track their blood pressure.

Suzanne Henson (middle), registered dietitian for UMC, leads a grocery store tour in Pickens County, Alabama in 2016.

UMC and its psychiatry and behavioral medicine clinic recently assumed operation of Brewer-Porch Children’s Center, which provides behavioral health care for children and adolescents locally and across the state of Alabama. Clinic psychiatrists, psychologists and other providers with experience and expertise in child and adolescent mental health, who also practice at UMC, oversee and provide care at Brewer-Porch.

Dr. Thad Ulzen, professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine for CCHS, said being part of UMC will enable Brewer-Porch to bring to the children there on-site primary health care provided by UMC physicians. “We also plan to strengthen efforts on behalf of Brewer-Porch to promote primary prevention programs in the community to complement the center’s existing programs,” he said.

COVID-19

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic this year, UMC ramped up provision of patient services via telemedicine for both physical and mental health care.

UMC is also providing mental health care services via telemedicine specifically for first responders and health professionals who are dealing daily with the COVID-19 pandemic. “We’re providing support during these stressful times for those workers on the front lines of COVID-19,” Friend said.

Using UA’s Mobile Outreach Unit, UMC physicians and nurses have traveled to communities in Alabama’s impoverished and medically underserved Black Belt region to provide free COVID-19 screening and testing for residents there.

Mobile Outreach Unit at Tuscaloosa’s Government Plaza in 2019.

Interior shot of Mobile Outreach Unit.

Mobile Outreach Unit being used at one of the many COVID-19 test sites set up in various Black Belt locations in spring 2020.

A COVID-19 test conducted during The University of Alabama’s campus re-entry testing in July 2020.

“We have brought COVID-19 screening and testing to Alabama Black Belt communities, which are enduring higher rates of the virus than other parts of the state,” Friend said. “The region has long suffered from inadequate access to health-care services.”

UMC is also leading efforts to keep the UA community safe from COVID-19 by providing virus testing for students, faculty and staff. That work is expected to continue in the spring semester. Also, resident physicians who care for patients at UMC have also been caring for UA students in COVID-19 quarantine and isolation.

Toward the future

UMC continues to look for opportunities to grow and to provide increased access to health care in West Alabama, particularly in its medically underserved communities. Additional locations and services are being considered and planned for 2021.

Many of the programs and initiatives put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic will likely continue, particularly the use of telemedicine in patient care and the continued outreach to Alabama Black Belt and other rural communities whose populations experience significant health disparities, in large part to a lack of a health care infrastructure there.

“University Medical Center will continue to look for ways to provide health care to people and to communities where it is most needed,” Friend said. “It has been, and continues to be, our privilege to care for and serve West Alabama.”

THE FLAGSHIP: UNIVERSITY MEDICAL CENTER IN TUSCALOOSA

University Medical Center, with locations in Tuscaloosa, Northport and Demopolis, has grown into the largest multi-specialty ambulatory medical practice in West Alabama with more than 160,000 annual patient visits.

University Medical Center flagship site, located on the University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa.

UMC-Northport, located inside the Fitness One building on McFarland Boulevard.

UMC-Demopolis, located inside the Outpatient Medical Center at the Whitfield Regional Hospital, member of the UAB Health System.

UMC in Tuscaloosa, located on The University of Alabama campus, is the oldest and largest of the three locations, providing care in family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, psychiatry and behavioral medicine, sports medicine, geriatrics, neurology and endocrinology.

In addition, UMC provides social services, nutrition services, travel health services and a clinic exclusively for UA employees offering physical and mental health care services. There is also on-site laboratory and X-ray services.

The Family Medicine Clinic is the largest, with 26 exam rooms, two nursing stations, a procedures room and an ultrasound suite that is also equipped for EKG stress testing and pulmonary function testing. The Obstetrics and Gynecology Clinic has an ultrasound suite, and the Sports Medicine Clinic has four exam rooms and an ultrasound room.

Construction will begin in 2021 on an addition to UMC for the UA MRI Center. The MRI scanner that will be housed in the center will be used to conduct research into the human brain and its development and will encourage interdisciplinary collaborations across the UA campus and, ultimately, allow for leaps in neuroscience research.