ON ROUNDS | FALL 2016
BY LESLIE ZGANJAR and BRETT JAILLET
The partnership, now underway, is providing needed health resources to the rural county while UA students receive training and experience in their fields
About three years ago, Pickens County Medical Center found itself in the same situation as many rural hospitals in Alabama and across the country. What was once the rural county’s largest employer—it had more than 300 on staff at one point—the county-owned hospital in Carrollton, Alabama, faced financial challenges that had resulted in layoffs and furloughs, cuts to programs and services and concern about the hospital’s ability to pay its bills on time.
It was feared that the 56-bed medical center, which had provided inpatient, outpatient and emergency services for the county’s nearly 20,000 residents since it opened in 1979, might close.
This is a familiar plight for rural parts of the state. By 2011, Alabama rural hospitals had closed in Florala, Elba, Clanton, Hartselle, Thomasville and Roanoke. Others cut services, particularly obstetrical care.
What makes this worse is that because of the characteristics of their populations, rural areas need greater access to health care, as their citizens are typically older, sicker and poorer.
In Pickens County, nearly one-third of the population lives below the poverty line and health outcome rankings show that the county is 41st among the state’s 67 counties. Faced with the closing of the medical center and what it could mean for the community, a conversation began.
It started within Pickens County. The County Commission, in collaboration with Buddy Kirk, a retired attorney, Patti Presley-Fuller, the extension coordinator of Pickens County, and local businessman and state Rep. Alan Harper, formed a citizens committee, which came to be known as Friends of the Hospital in Pickens County. They knew action had to be taken if the hospital was to stay open.
The University of Alabama and its College of Community Health Sciences were brought into the discussion by several Pickens County physicians who are graduates of the College’s medical programs and who have served as clinical teachers for CCHS medical students and residents. After several months of brainstorming and discussions, those involved met with top UA officials in August 2014, including former UA President Dr. Judy Bonner.
“Ideas and support for a collaboration emerged from the conversations,” says Dr. Richard Streiffer, dean of CCHS. “They asked, ‘Could the rural county partner with UA to bring intellectual capital and energy from University faculty and students while simultaneously helping the county and its health care and providing real life educational experiences for students?”’
The concept of a Health Care Teaching County, allowing Pickens County to benefit from additional health services and UA students to learn from hands-on experiences, was born.
After further discussions between UA and the citizens of Pickens County, and with help from Harper, $600,000 was secured from the Alabama Legislature to initiate The University of Alabama-Pickens County Partnership.
Coordinated by CCHS, the partnership seeks to provide sustainable health care for the rural county and “real world” training for UA students in medicine, nursing, social work, psychology, health education and other disciplines. With oversight from UA faculty and in partnership with Pickens County organizations, students will gain practice from internships and other learning opportunities, while the county will gain additional and needed health resources.