By Lynette Norris
Greene Publishing, Inc.
The North Florida Rural Healthcare Workforce Development Network began a few years ago with a group of local ladies who were looking for ways to bring more specialists and other healthcare professionals into Madison County and improve access to health care for the local population.
In a poor, rural county like Madison, where 25 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, travel costs to see a specialist in another county can be an insurmountable obstacle; even if the doctor visit is covered by some form of subsidy or insurance, gas is not. Madison also has a high percentage of senior adults (even among the workforce, the majority is over age 50), some of whom may have very limited or even no transportation. For those with no form transportation at all, travel to a distant county is usually out of the question.
Phil Wilkerson, Executive Director of the North Florida Rural Health Workforce, and Amy Ellison, Staff Assistant, visited the Kiwanis Club March 29 to talk about the organization that has come about from those early efforts to bridge the health care access gap. The workforce began coming together, loosely at first, then more and more formally in 2010 and 2011, until now, “We’re getting geared up and focused on our goals” said Wilkerson.
The workforce is about improving access to heath care for an underserved region that now includes six North Florida counties in its network: Hamilton, Jefferson, Lafayette, Suwannee, Taylor and Madison.
Wilkerson and Ellison discussed the strengths and challenges of the Workforce’s plans to bring more desperately needed health care professionals into the area.
One potential “home grown” resource of health care workers is the RN program at NFCC. Nursing students can complete the program in two years, and the last class to graduate had all taken the state exam and passed the first time.
In addition to the registered nursing program, there are also practical nursing, patient care technician, EMT and paramedic programs at NFCC.
Another effort toward developing “home grown” health care professionals involves identifying those potential professionals early in the pipeline – identifying high school and even middle school students with the interest and the aptitude for health care careers, encouraging more students to enroll in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) classes, offering tagged college scholarships that would require the recipients to work in the county for a certain amount of time upon graduation, or even just encouraging them to come back home to work and be the “hometown heroes” the community needs.
The advantage of recruitment efforts within this pool would be a higher percentage of people from the North Florida region, people with roots in the local communities, who could be persuaded to stay; the challenge would be job opportunities with sufficient pay. Another challenge with local training for health care careers is the difficulty in finding instructors for the courses.
When recruiting outside the region, forgiveness of medical student loans in return for a two to three-year commitment is another option. Medical students often graduate with a staggering amount of debt, and the loan forgiveness is handled by a federal agency that would not cost the local community.
The challenge would be getting them to stay after their commitment is up, whether it meant showcasing Madison as great place to live and raise a family, or finding out what they would need in order to stay permanently. Often, young medical professionals will have young families, so the local schools would play an important part in where they decide to live.
As for job opportunities, the hospital in Madison is expanding, and the aging population means a greater need for health care services, especially services like physical therapy, which has been identified as a “hot item.”
Finally, getting them come even for sufficient pay and job opportunities is one thing; getting them to stay, to fall in love with Madison County, make it their home and live out their lives here, means “finding those unique personalities that are open to living and working in a rural area,” Wilkerson told the audience. It means finding the ones who will eventually be an inseparable part of the community and come to understand rural health care and the people who depend on it.
They are the ones who will come to understand that ultimately, rural health care is not about accounts receivable – it’s about relationships.