UNCP health study moves forward

UNCP Nursing Class

A study outlining the positive impacts of a College of Health Sciences at UNC Pembroke is headed to the General Assembly after being approved by the UNC Board of Governors on Friday.

The state budget adopted in 2017 provided up to $100,000 to perform a study on the feasibility of establishing the college at UNCP. The legislatively-directed study charged the Board of Governors with considering the health care needs of the region as well as the economic benefits in its review.

“We are appreciative of the General Assembly’s passion for improving the health outcomes of our region, and in the implied confidence in UNC Pembroke’s ability to be the driving force to address these needs by forming a College of Health Sciences,” Chancellor Robin Gary Cummings said while addressing the Board of Governors’ Educational Planning, Policies and Programs Committee.

The study includes an in-depth look at the region, possible health care programs, and a potential approach to the establishment of a College of Health Sciences.

The Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research at UNC and Consulstart led by Dr. John Ruffin, founding director of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities at the National Institutes of Health, both evaluated options and concluded a College of Health Sciences at UNC Pembroke could be transformative for health outcomes and serve as an economic engine in southeastern North Carolina and beyond.

Dr. Aaron Vandermeer, faculty senate chair, said he was pleased to learn of the Board of Governors’ approval.

“The potential for its impact on our region is enormous, for our students, the community, and the university alike. I cannot imagine a better locus for the creation of a community to focus on the practice, pedagogy, and promotion of health.”

Southeastern North Carolinians have significantly less access to health care providers in every measureable health profession, and Robeson County is recognized as having some of the worst population health outcomes.

As one of the most rural areas in the second most rural state in the country, the counties in proximity to UNC Pembroke face staggering conditions of high obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, infant mortality, and death rates for minors.

For the last eight years, Robeson County has been ranked between 95 and 100 out of the state’s 100 counties in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s health outcome measurements. Two separate studies indicate that, on average, a person born in Robeson County lives 7 to 8 years less than a person born in Wake County.

Rural health care shortages are persistent throughout North Carolina, and are particularly prevalent in southeastern North Carolina. Fast-growing professions like nursing, nurse practitioner, occupational therapy, and optometry are too often in short supply in the region.

Data shows North Carolina’s health workforce is significantly less diverse than the state’s population. The study concludes that as one of the most ethnically diverse institutions in the south, a College of Health Sciences at UNC Pembroke would be uniquely positioned to address diversity challenges present in the workforce. 

UNC Pembroke, already known for access, affordability, and a diverse student population, could “grow their own” workforce, an approach championed by researchers.

Evidence from UNCP’s current health care programs in nursing, counseling and social work shows graduates tend to stay in the region to practice at a rate of 80 percent or more.

Health care partners in the region support the establishment of the new college at the university.

“This school would provide an opportunity to grow a stronger, highly educated, and qualified health care focused workforce in southeastern North Carolina,” wrote Joann Anderson, Southeastern Health president and CEO, in a letter of support.

“The ability to educate and train young people from [this region] close to home will increase the likelihood they will remain in the area after completion of the program. This improved workforce will have an overall positive impact on the local economy.”

A similar sentiment was shared by Gregory Wood, president and CEO of Scotland Health Care System, in his letter of support.

“Recruiting and retaining quality health care professionals in a rural area like ours is quite challenging,” Wood wrote. “Individuals who are from our region or want to work in rural environments greatly increases our long-term retention rates.”

Anderson and Wood were among the 81 regional health care professionals that participated in five focus groups led by Dr. Jeff Frederick, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. It was clear that health care partners in the region support the establishment of a new college at the university and its potential to help transform health outcomes.

The study concluded that a College of Health Sciences could build on the success of existing health-related programs – nursing, social work, clinical mental health counseling, athletic training, exercise/sports science, and school counseling.

A proposed three-phased approach would add additional bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral programs such as nurse practitioner, optometry, occupational therapy, physical therapy, public health, nutrition and dietetics, health informatics, health administration, and a two-year degree completion program in rural health equity for individuals in a patient support role transitioning to leadership roles.

Beginning in 2018, the three phases would extend through 2027, ending with a sweeping assessment to identify additional opportunities.

The study suggests UNC Pembroke could build on existing core competencies in programs and construct inter-professional course structures, something that experts say can break down silos between providers, and educate a team-oriented health care professional more prepared to meet the increasingly complex healthcare needs of a diverse, rural population.

“Creating a workforce that understands and appreciates rural environments, that receives an affordable education for health professions that are both in demand and in short supply in southeastern North Carolina, a workforce that appreciates the growing racial, economic and geographic diversity of the state, and a workforce that can help drive a more resilient regional economy, this is a win for our region, our state and its taxpayers, and especially for low income and rural students who deserve access to higher education and its benefits,” said UNCP Provost David Ward.

The study also discusses the establishment of a clinical research program, designed to invite external funding and key personnel attracted by the opportunity to study health conditions resistant over decades to intervention, in an economically challenged, clinically diverse environment. 

The chancellor emphasized that the university is well poised to implement a College of Health Sciences given the experience and expertise of its leadership. Dr. Cummings is a former cardiothoracic surgeon and served as North Carolina Medicaid director. 

Dr. Ward has served as dean of college of health sciences at two previous institutions. UNCP Board of Trustees Chairman Jim Jones, a medical doctor, is the founding chair of the Family Medicine program at ECU’s Brody School of Medicine and is past president of the National Academy of Family Physicians.

“We know a thing or two about health care because we’ve done a thing or two in health care,” said Cummings.

“For UNC Pembroke, this study and its actions are visceral,” said Cummings. “These are our neighbors and our children. We see the need every day. Our commitment to this study and its full implementation is born of a sense of mission and duty. We will be accountable, collaborative and focused on results.”