Voices from the Field

Partnerships are key to addressing health inequities

Mary Jo Cagle, MD, is CEO of Cone Health in Greensboro and serves on the NCHA Equity Committee.

Everyone wants a healthy North Carolina – health care providers most of all. However, the COVID-19 pandemic put into stark relief the inequities that many North Carolinians face.  Many people don’t have a relationship with a doctor because there aren’t any where they live. They couldn’t register for a lifesaving vaccination because there is no broadband in their neighborhood. Others were reluctant to get vaccinated because they didn’t trust the medical establishment. To be honest, health care can’t fix this. But the good news is, through partnerships we all can. Here are some ways Cone Health and its partners are making a difference.

Imagine missing 10% of the school year and trying to keep up. We are tackling chronic absenteeism by partnering with Guilford County Schools. We brought telemedicine into three schools as a pilot. Now when a student has an earache, she and a parent take part in an online visit with a doctor. A nurse uses Bluetooth-connected devices so the doctor can peer into the child’s hear or listen to her heartbeat. The student may get a prescription and returns to class. Parents don’t miss work to pick up a sick child from school, and parent and child don’t spend hours that night waiting on an emergency room doctor.

In the first year of the program, 300 children received care in their school’s virtual clinic. Of those 300, 240 returned to their classroom the same day. Without telemedicine services, all 300 would have been sent home, missing the rest of the school day.

Cone Health is tackling a lack of neighborhood doctors through a mobile medicine program. Specially equipped buses and vans make accessing diagnosis, treatment, education and support easier than it’s ever been. The program offers basic acute and primary care, as well as basic health screenings, annual wellness visits and cancer screenings. The seeds were sown during the pandemic. We partnered with churches, community centers and neighborhoods to bring testing and vaccinations to residents. The roots of those partnerships grow strong today.

To help address the long-standing need for enhanced behavioral health care in North Carolina, Cone Health partnered with Guilford County and Sandhills Center to open the Guilford County Behavioral Health Urgent Care (BHUC). The first of its kind in the state, the BHUC combines behavioral health services and emergency medical care provided by Cone Health hospitals in a specially designed single location, making acute and outpatient therapy accessible for adolescents and adults 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

But the ultimate partnerships are with residents themselves. With Guilford County, we are forming a joint team to partner with the community’s most vulnerable members in identifying – and removing – obstacles that impact their ability to get healthy and stay healthy. We will use community-based design, social innovation and other techniques to explore access to health care, access to quality education, reliable transportation, safe housing, proper nutrition and other factors that influence health.

We will learn what issues people are facing and work with them to identify areas of opportunity. By partnering with the county, we will have an inroad to quickly implement viable solutions.

Removing health inequities is becoming a bigger part of what we do. In August, we established the Cone Health Center for Health Equity to address the areas of greatest need in the communities we serve. We seek to improve the health of underserved individuals and to do so in the most cost-effective manner possible. The goal is nothing short of removing poor health as an obstacle to achieving one’s goals and ambitions.

That’s an audacious goal. But there’s real power in connecting and pooling resources. Together, I am confident we will achieve it.