Working to serve all the people of N.C.

As a state-supported medical school, it has always been a part of the mission of the UNC School of Medicine to improve the health of all the people of North Carolina, particularly to people living in communities that are underserved or lack access to good healthcare.

In April, the School was nationally recognized for its effort to fulfill this mission when it was ranked as the seventh best school in the country for rural medicine as a part of U.S. News and World Report’s Best Medical Schools rankings.

A large part of the School’s success in reaching and providing care to rural areas is due to the N.C. Area Health Education Centers (AHEC) Program. The School of Medicine and N.C. AHEC have been closely tied since AHEC’s establishment in the 1970s, said Thomas Bacon, Dr.PH., director of N.C. AHEC.  The program, he said, was part of a major initiative to provide statewide community-based training for health professionals and reduce the shortage of primary care doctors in rural areas.  AHEC partners with health care providers across the state to emphasize primary care and prevention among North Carolina’s underserved communities and populations.

While the School of Medicine is only one of many entities that partners with N.C. AHEC, Bacon says, “I think UNC has a long-standing reputation for paying special attention to these things – to fulfilling its mission to serve the underserved.”

The AHEC program provides a structure for off-site education, and the School provides support in the form of student-clinicians and faculty preceptors. For example, third-year medical students completing clerkships spend 40 percent of their clinical time off-campus in AHEC-supported community practices and hospitals – some of them in very rural areas.

Jonas Swartz, a third-year medical student, got a taste of rural medicine when he completed his family medicine clerkship at a community health center in Prospect Hill, N.C. “I really liked Prospect Hill because it was an introduction to what a comprehensive clinic looks like,” Swartz said. “It’s not something I’d been exposed to before.”

Swartz said he thought the clinic probably saw more prenatal and pediatric cases because of its rural location in Caswell County where there aren’t as many options for specialty care. He also got to work outside of the clinic. One of his duties was going to tobacco farms to provide migrant workers with health assessments as part of the Farmer Outreach Program. “That’s the really cool thing about Prospect Hill. You really get to know the community,” he said.

By exposing students to this sort of experience, the hope is, of course, that some will go on to practice in rural areas. It worked for John Torontow. He is a 1999 graduate of the UNC School of Medicine who now practices in Moncure, N.C., a rural community near Siler City.

“Being a medical student at UNC really gave me the opportunity to see rural health in action,” Torontow said. During medical school, he was precepted in Williamston, a small town outside of Greenville, and he worked in a student-run clinic in Rose Hill. “The AHEC system is key to the state’s work on rural health.  It provides professional students the opportunity work with rural healthcare providers,” Torontow said. Also, as a student at UNC he was able to be a part of the Rural Health Scholars Program, a fellowship designed by the Office of Rural Health for UNC and ECU students.

Torontow grew up in small town where his father was a doctor, and he says he’s always felt the most at home in small towns because people tend to be more neighborly. “The best thing about practicing here is my relationship with the community. I have heard colleagues say that they would not want to live so close to their patients – to see them in the grocery store, for example.  To me, there is something inherently sad with that sentiment.  There is a sense of community in Siler City and I am tickled to be a part of that.”

To see the impact of UNC Health Care and the UNC School of Medicine across the state, please view this new interactive map. It provides information about the number of patients we serve and the amount of uncompensated care we provide. This data is also available for all 100 counties by hovering over a particular county on the map.

The map also shows how each county fits into the N.C. AHEC program.