This rural clinic expands its services with telehealth
EdNC joined Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina on their “Extra Miles” listening tour of Surry and Forsyth counties. Blue Cross NC travels to visit education and health systems as well as other anchor institutions across the state.
Surry Medical Ministries is a “private, not-for-profit, free primary health clinic serving the needs of medically disadvantaged people in the greater Surry County.” The property is nestled between the mountains of Mount Airy, a 40-minute drive from Winston Salem.
The small staff of health care providers currently serves about 1,000 low-income or uninsured people. At the same time last year, they served around 640 patients. The number of patients they see on average has increased dramatically thanks to telehealth services.
Surry Medical Ministries strives to bridge the gap between underfunded communities and institutions with an overflow of financial resources. Lack of cash support for rural clinics posed problems during the pandemic. Clinic staff have worked tirelessly to host COVID-19 vaccination clinics with transport for those in need, provide educational information to non-English speaking residents, and offer COVID testing and support to people in quarantine.
Nancy Dixon, President and Director of Surry Medical Ministries, is concerned about the continuum of patient care. She and her team are keenly aware of the challenges individuals face when seeking medical expertise in rural settings.
“There is no safety net,” Dixon said. “There is nothing like it for people at the lower end of the socio-economic ladder.
Dixon knew that the need for private access to medical providers would only grow throughout the pandemic.
“When COVID started, we realized how [telehealth] was going to be, ”she said.
As the farm laborer season began, the clinic knew that reaching patients virtually would be essential. Patients must make an appointment to be seen, and the clinic has a limited schedule of hours of operation on Tuesday and Thursday of each week. Navigating the limited hours can be difficult for farm workers, and reaching isolated communities during the pandemic would prove difficult due to small staff and limited resources. Telehealth has become the necessary bridging providers to connect with their community.
Surry Communications, a local broadband service provider, got involved as soon as the issue was brought to their attention. The company asked which locations would best serve the community and covered the cost of the construction. Within weeks, two farms were equipped with fiber optic internet and residents were able to connect with healthcare providers in a private setting and receive information relevant to their specific needs.
Dixon and his team saw an influx of patients throughout 2021 with hundreds of new patients seeking medical care. One Sunday a month, they open the clinic doors to give educational presentations on COVID precautions and answer questions about the vaccine. The clinic administered the vaccine to just under 1,000 people alone.
Dixon credits its diverse staff for making their patients more comfortable and meeting their individual needs.
“We know our patients so well,” she said. “It’s really great when you have a diverse staff. If someone looks like you, if you’re black. … If you are someone who speaks Spanish, have someone you really talk to [the vaccine], to talk about it. It means something. It is vital. It’s this one-on-one.
The pressure is intense on staff and volunteers and can lead to burnout. The increased demand for healthcare from new patients has put a strain on the clinic, which has also seen fewer volunteers during the pandemic.
“What contributes to the exhaustion is that the demand exceeds capacity,” Dixon said.
She explained that the clinic may limit the number of patients it can see or continue to care for more people and face financial limitations. The clinic is funded by donations and grants.
“We couldn’t in good conscience say that we are not going to accept someone,” she said. “It’s against what we believe.”