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ODU joins forces with UVA to combat rural health care issues

In the rural areas of southwest Virginia, accessibility to quality health care professionals is often more of a hope than a reality. Little towns like Wise, with a population of 3,286, join a cluster of underserved communities in dire need of healthcare resources.

But these conditions are starting to change, and the latest collaboration between Old Dominion University's School of Nursing and the University of Virginia will sow the seeds of a more robust healthcare force in such areas.

ODU's School of Nursing recently received a three-year, $2.1 million Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) grant to develop the infrastructure for an increase of Advanced Practice Nurses (APNs) in rural and underserved areas of Virginia. APNs, such as nurse practitioners, are capable of doing referrals, prescribing medications, sending patients for X-rays and having and caring for their own patients.

"The nurse practitioner is your bio-psycho-social provider - your caring model opposed to the physician's curing model," said Carolyn Rutledge, associate chair for graduate programs for the School of Nursing.

The HRSA grant will support a project to build a telehealth network between ODU's School of Nursing, the University of Virginia Center for Telehealth and Community Partners/Preceptor Sites. This network will recruit and train about 48 preceptors (or instructors) who will teach at least 90 APN students over a three-year period.

The students, who live in these rural areas, will be taught in "virtual classrooms" for distance learning, where expertise from highly qualified healthcare providers are a mere teleconference away. The project also will provide opportunities for other universities in the state to participate and use the state Department of Health's free clinics as well as federally qualified health centers. Many of the students educated through the project will go on to serve their communities.

For the students, "the education is taken to them," Rutledge said. "A lot of them can't get the education if they have to relocate. When you're in rural areas you don't have the support systems you have in urban areas, which is why a lot of times physicians don't leave these areas. Through telehealth you can collaborate with other disciplines at a distance. They can have their patients evaluated at a distance by a specialist."

The project, which started July 1, will be up and running by January 2016.

"In the next couple weeks, we'll be meeting with the key players at UVA and the Virginia Department of Health to discuss rules and objectives in developing the program," Rutledge said.

The project will initially focus on rural areas in southwest Virginia, because a lot of the telehealth infrastructure has already been put into place there by UVA, she said. The plan is to expand the program eventually to other rural areas, such as those on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

ODU's School of Nursing will play several key roles in the project. Faculty and staff will serve as project director, specialty coordinator for the nurse practitioner and clinical nurse specialist programs, the preceptor mentor, the website designer, the evaluation coordinator, the project manager/standardized patient coordinator. In addition to Rutledge, Drs. Christianne Fowler, Tina Haney, Rebecca Poston and Lynn Wiles also will be working on the project. Ajay Gupta, from ODU's Computer Science Department, will provide expertise with the website component.

Rutledge says grant money for such a project breaks new ground in healthcare.

"This was an amazing feat in that the competition was very tight," she said. "I do believe this is going to be a game changer for healthcare and education.

"A lot of time when we think about health care, the focus is urban issues," she added. "The exciting thing about this project is that it will help so many in rural areas who don't get the necessary health care."

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