Leaders of Western Carolina University and Harris Regional Hospital and Swain Community Hospital on Tuesday, Oct. 20, announced the expansion and formalization of a partnership focused on ensuring access to quality health care in North Carolina’s westernmost counties.
Through the initiative, titled The Ascent Partnership, the organizations will work together to train the next generation of health care workers, support athletics and the arts in communities in the region, create opportunities for community engagement on wellness, and expand local availability of needed health care services.
As a pivotal part of the initiative, Harris Regional and Swain Community hospitals will cover the total educational costs for three students to enroll in WCU’s family nurse practitioner program who have committed to working for one of the hospitals. One student will be chosen to receive the award and begin the two-year program over each of the next three years.
“This award program will enable the students to graduate debt-free and will provide guaranteed employment upon degree completion, which certainly will be important factors for the students,” said WCU Chancellor David Belcher. “But the real value of this program is the impact it will have on our community. It will help meet a critical need for additional primary health care providers.”
Rural Western North Carolina faces a shortage of physicians, and family nurse practitioners are qualified, cost-effective primary care providers who can help meet the increasing demand for high-quality health care in the region, Belcher said.
Steve Heatherly, chief executive officer for Harris Regional and Swain Community hospitals, both of which are part of Duke LifePoint Healthcare, called The Ascent Partnership a formalization of the hospitals’ commitment to the community through a decades-long collaboration with WCU to provide training to future health care professionals.
“The training and placement of highly skilled primary care providers is a critical element of enhancing the quality of life in our region. However, full tuition support for nurse practitioner students is but one facet of The Ascent Partnership,” Heatherly said. “The partnership also is focused on improving the health and well-being of the communities we collectively serve through collaboration and innovation.”
The hospitals and university created a sports medicine program about 15 years ago that serves WCU’s student-athletes, provides training for physical therapists and sports medicine clinicians, and has placed athletic trainers in 10 high schools in the region to provide access to a coordinated system of care for nearly 1,500 student-athletes and
their families annually, he said.
Last fall saw the opening of a primary care clinic called Harris Family Care – Cullowhee inside the WCU Health and Human Sciences Building. “The practice is available to serve our entire community, increasing access to high-quality care, and also serves as a site for nurse practitioner students to train,” Heatherly said.
The Ascent Partnership also features a community education component with a regular speakers series highlighting experts from the university and the local hospitals, and it will be the foundation for the hospitals’ ongoing support of the university’s Valley of the Lilies Half Marathon and 5K, the Catamount athletics programs, and arts functions occurring on campus through WCU’s Friends of the Arts organization.
Announcement of The Ascent Partnership came during opening remarks at LEAD:WNC, a one-day summit that brought together approximately 200 leaders from across the region to design solutions to the unique challenges faced by communities in the westernmost part of the state.
Following the announcement, Heatherly joined leaders from Duke LifePoint Healthcare – Jeff Seraphine, president of LifePoint Health’s Eastern Group, and Dr. Harry Phillips, professor of medicine and chief medical officer, network services, for Duke University Health System – for the morning keynote presentation on “The State of Health Care and Its Effect on the Quality of Life.”
David B. Fountain, Duke Energy’s state president for North Carolina, delivered the luncheon address, “Energizing Western North Carolina’s Quality of Life.” The summit included a series of panel discussions on a variety of topics: creative arts; education, the environment, health care, innovation and technology, and tourism.
“We launched LEAD:WNC last year in the hope that it would lead to formal and informal partnerships that would help move the region forward,” Belcher said. “The formalization of our partnership with Harris and Swain hospitals around community health is exactly the kind of collaboration we had hoped to see come to life.”