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The COVID-19 pandemic caused economic challenges for families, put patient health at risk and placed significant financial strain on hospitals and health systems, just when North Carolinians needed them most.
In the summer of 2020, the North Carolina Healthcare Foundation formed the COVID-19 Fill the Gap Response Fund and partnered with private and corporate donors to help healthcare organizations and community groups meet the needs of patients and families across North Carolina.
More than 30 organizations received funding to support vulnerable populations, telehealth programs, mobile care models and more. Here are five of these important stories.
Robeson County is a vibrant, diverse, close-knit rural community. Local health system Southeastern Health is focused on reducing rates of chronic disease in the area, from cancer and cardiovascular disease to congestive heart disease and lung cancer. The system is particularly focused on reaching patients early, both to prevent disease as well as catch conditions early enough to treat them. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, patient volumes at the emergency department dropped as people feared getting care, and many patients with chronic conditions experienced care lapses.
Telehealth, or care by phone or video chat, has received a lot of attention during the pandemic as a solution for receiving care while social distancing. But many in rural communities don’t have consistent access to Wi-Fi or necessary devices. Southeastern Health plans to use funding from the North Carolina Healthcare Foundation to place kiosks in community areas, such as in police departments, so patients have one central place to connect to reliable Wi-Fi. Funding may also be used to distribute healthcare-specific devices and wearable devices to maintain care before conditions reach crisis point.
“We don’t want to wait for the crisis – we can improve the quality of patients’ lives and keep them in the home,” said Lorie Dove, vice president and chief administrative officer for Southeastern Health. “My goal is that we’re able to put these devices and access in even the most rural areas of our community.”
Faith-based organizations are important partners for hospitals and health systems in engaging with patients, especially those in historically marginalized communities. A multi-partner group, including Duke Health, Curamericas Global and AME Zion Baptist churches in the Raleigh area has developed and implemented a care management platform to better address health and social needs during the pandemic in the Triangle.
The program is starting in Onslow County, and funding from the North Carolina Healthcare Foundation will help launch and expand the program’s reach. Patients use the platform to answer a series of questions daily, and if responses indicate illness or a need for social services, community outreach is triggered. Duke Health clinicians will respond to healthcare needs, and community groups such as NC Cares 360 will deliver food, assist with housing, childcare, or other needs.
“We’re building trust in these communities to bring people together and engage patients on a more consistent and robust level,” said Mark Sendak, population health and data science lead at Duke Institute of Health innovation.
J. Arthur Dosher Memorial Hospital Foundation, Inc.
Dosher Memorial Hospital is a small, critical care access in Southport, North Carolina. Not only did the hospital have to prepare for COVID-19 patients and the financial strains associated with pausing elective surgeries, many on staff were also personally affected by the pandemic. Though the hospital was fortunate to keep most staff working, households across the community were impacted in other ways, such as spouses or other family members losing jobs or income.
The J. Arthur Dosher Memorial Hospital Foundation plans to use funding from the North Carolina Healthcare Foundation to support financial assistance programs for staff members, as well as other efforts to support employee wellbeing, as many report experiencing feelings of burnout and other mental health concerns.
Funds will also be used to provide health services in impoverished rural communities of color in the Southport area, and to engage church communities by providing communication kits to houses of faith for wellness visits and virtual care.
Cape Fear Valley Health System
When COVID-19 hit, Fayetteville-based Cape Fear Valley Health System considered how to best ensure the safety of all served by the system, including patients and employees. Leaders at the health system identified three core needs – discharge support for underserved patients, virtual behavioral health services and increased nursing support.
Funds from the North Carolina Healthcare Foundation will support underserved patients with medication distribution, medical equipment and transportation, and will also be used to increase nursing coverage at the hospital, giving nurses working with COVID-19 patients additional breaks.
Last, the project will implement behavioral health programming across five counties, including a “traveling psychotherapist” who rotates across clinical locations to serve more of the rural, underserved population, as well as providing telemedicine tools and technology.
“The mental health of patients can directly impact the physical health of patients,” said John Bigger, corporate director of clinical services at Cape Fear Valley Health System. “This integrated approach to care for patients is a critical concept that helps them get better, quicker.”
Iredell Memorial Hospital – Iredell Physician Network
The need for video visits and remote patient monitoring in rural Alexander County is high. The county doesn’t have a hospital system, so patients receive their care at physician practices and an urgent care center. Many patients experience poverty and transportation issues, and many lost jobs due to business closures during the pandemic.
With funds received from the North Carolina Healthcare Foundation, Iredell Physician Network will deploy telemedicine tools for patients with one or more comorbidity who are at increased risk of complications if they contract COVID-19. The system hopes to deploy 50 units to start the initiative, which would allow for continuous monitoring of patients who fall in the comorbidity criteria.
“A lot of patients have trouble finding ways to get to the doctor or managing their chronic care needs and prescriptions,” said Carla Johnson, director of operations for the Iredell Physician Network, and the initiative allows the health network to deliver innovative care where patients are and connect them with the resources they need.