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Health care management project wins national award; may become statewide model

BOONE—A program that paired undergraduate students from Appalachian State University with rural clinics in Watauga, Ashe and Avery counties, won a $25,000 national award from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust and may become a model for similar partnerships across the state.

More than three dozen health care management majors from Appalachian’s College of Health Sciences helped rural medical practices in the three-county region improve the quality of their patient care and reduce health care costs through a three-year demonstration project between AccessCare of the Blue Ridge, which is a program of Community Care of North Carolina, and the College of Health Sciences.

During the project, students provided an extra pair of eyes and hands to help the smaller medical practices implement or enhance quality enhancement and cost reduction measures. Such steps help the practices meet National Committee for Quality Assurance criteria for patient-centered medical home (PCHM) designation, according to Associate Professor David Williams in the Department of Nutrition and Health Care Management at Appalachian.

Medical practices that receive PCMH designation qualify for enhanced reimbursement from Medicaid, Medicare, Blue Cross Blue Shield and the N.C. State Health Plan.

“An aim of patient-centered practices is to reduce unnecessary emergency room visits by making a doctor’s office more accessible through expanded office hours, outreach and follow-up visits, especially for pediatric patients or those with chronic diseases,” Associate Professor Susan Roggenkamp explained. Roggenkamp is associate dean of the College of Health Sciences.

To date, more than 18 primary care practices representing more than 26,000 patients in Northwest North Carolina achieved PCMH recognition.

Raleigh native Todd Quartiere, a junior at Appalachian, knows he has already made a difference in the lives of others. So does Casey White of Kernersville who graduates May 10.

Quartiere’s semester-long practicum focused on quality improvement and patient outreach for two medical practices in Ashe County. He worked with office managers to identify and contact patients who were overdue for health screenings and schedule appointments for them. Other students helped practices implement technology to manage patient records and improve efficiency.

The experience for the students was invaluable.

“Winning the award was a reminder of how important the work we are doing is,” Quartiere said. “The whole class realized we have been doing some great work.”

Quartiere said the experience gave him a better perspective into his future career plans, which include working in a hospital setting, physician’s office or in medical sales. “I learned a great deal about working in the field by working with the office manager in a physician’s practice. I was able to see what’s actually going on. It has been an eye opener to see how a physician’s office operates and how quickly things can change.”

White initially worked to help a health center open in fall 2012, assisting the CEO and COO write policies and procedures. Later, she was an intern supervisor for AccessCare serving as a liaison between the medical practices, students and professors at Appalachian.

“These real life experiences let us know what to expect in health care and provide us with experiences to take to a job interview,” White said. “It also has been a great partnership for the medical offices that can be shorthanded,” said White who will work for Carolinas HealthCare System as a supervisor in its business office following graduation. “They get the help they need while students get real-world experience working on quality improvement practices.”

Williams said, “The fact that these students can show they are familiar with and have implemented NCQA standards, have had exposure to what a physician practice truly is, and that they understand patient flow and the issues of a small rural practice is going to help with employability, both for those who seek employment in a physician practice and also in a health system.”

“This innovative program exemplifies how public-private partnerships can improve health care for the citizens of rural North Carolina. Our students have benefitted greatly from the experience gained in this program, and they will take that experience with them as they begin their careers in health care,” said Dr. Fred Whitt, dean of the College of Health Sciences.