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Health officials mull residency program in Patrick

By Taylor Boyd

Health officials are considering a number of options to help address health needs, including creating a residency program.

Nancy Bell, public information officer with the West Piedmont Health Organization (WPHD) and the Healthy Patrick County Initiative, said finding ways to assist Dr. Richard Cole with his practice is a priority.

“The WPHD recognized getting him help would improve access to healthcare throughout the county,” Bell said.

Cole, who operates Patrick County Family Practice and Patrick County Family Practice Urgent Care, said he has thought of bringing medical residents in to help for a while.

The idea remains in the “thinking process right now,” Cole said, adding that residency programs have not been contacted yet, and details haven’t been worked out.

If WPHD and Cole choose to move forward with this idea, the residency programs in Danville, Roanoke, and Christiansburg most likely would be considered first due to their proximity to the county.

Bell said using rescue squad buildings as places for patients and medical personnel to conduct telehealth appointments also is under consideration.

She explained using the buildings would ensure internet access for the telehealth appointments, and also would help decrease workload at Cole’s practices.

“The purpose of this plan is to give Dr. Cole and his practice some infrastructure so they aren’t forced to do everything,” she said.

With this plan, rescue squads would perform basics functions, by gathering information about height, weight, and blood pressure, before Cole appears on the telehealth screen to meet with the patients.

Bell also said the WPHD wants to implement this plan in a way that doesn’t impact Cole’s practice or give him competition. “Dr. Cole has done a lot to make sure people get the care they need. He took his personal money to create the urgent care. Our goal is to help him improve the county’s healthcare. It’s just about trying to improve access” to healthcare, and “create programs in place as a fallback,” Bell said.

The WPHD and the Healthy Patrick County Initiative plan to pursue additional funding for both the residency and rescue squad programs, according to Bell, who added that she plans to present a timeline to the community of the plans before the end of the year.

“It’s too early to tell if the idea will bear fruit,” Cole said, adding that particularly with the residency program, “we would have to establish a rotation for family practice residents, discuss teaching requirements, and housing for the residents.”
For now, patient visits to his practice have returned to normal, with 80 to 90 percent the same as this time last year, Cole said.

He explained that office traffic decreased by about half around mid-March. Additionally, the urgent care was closed for a month earlier this year after visits dropped by 70 percent, he added.

When the urgent care facility reopened in June, Cole said it was extremely busy, partly because it had the only rapid COVID-19 tests in the area.

“We had people driving up to three hours away for COVID-19 testing so they could return to work or travel,” Cole said.

Together, the practice and the urgent care had 27,215 office visits over the past 12 months, and 4,826 visits to the nursing home and assisted living.

The practice also performed 889 COVID-19 rapid tests.

He began offering free COVID-19 testing on Oct. 1.

That first day, Cole said nine people were tested, and “expects testing to pick up next week.”

Testing is available Monday-Friday from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. at the urgent care facility. Results are expected in 1-2 days. Those seeking tests must answer some preliminary questions, but are not required to get out of their vehicle, he said.

Cole also plans to expand the hours at the urgent care, from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday by Jan. 1. He said there is a possibility of implementing that plan earlier, provided additional personnel are in place.

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