Universities’ programs tackle health care issues in rural Alabama

In Alabama’s rural communities, a health care crisis is spreading. Local hospitals are straining under economic pressures and slashing services to keep the doors open. In all but a handful of counties, there is a shortage of front-line doctors.

These problems are intensified by Alabama’s obesity rate and the fact that conditions such as diabetes and hypertension are more widespread across the state than in the nation as a whole.

For Alabama, health care ills have far-reaching consequences. Not only does the lack of medical care impact residents, but the situation also threatens to curb workforce growth and diminishes the state’s ability to attract new businesses and jobs.

To attack the problem, the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the University of Alabama have taken the offensive with a wide range of programs and initiatives.

They are providing medical education and training, assisting struggling hospitals with management expertise, developing sustainable health care models and deploying innovative technologies to benefit rural patients, along with much more.

Fess St. John, interim chancellor of the University of Alabama System, said it is critical that the UA System’s experts take the lead to identify ways to expand access to medical care across the state, particularly in rural areas.

“We don’t need to wake up one day where people in small counties or counties that don’t happen to be close to a big city don’t have a doctor or a hospital anymore,” St. John said. “Somebody needs to be thinking about that – and it needs to be the University of Alabama, UAB and our System.”


These efforts are essential because the shortage of rural physicians is expected to worsen as Alabama’s population ages, older physicians retire and fewer doctors choose to practice in Alabama’s small towns and rural communities.

In May 2018, UAB and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama unveiled a partnership that calls for UAB to train 60 primary care physicians to work in underserved areas of the state. Blue Cross is giving $3.6 million to fund scholarships for UAB medical students over a five-year period.

After completing their residencies, these UAB-trained physicians will practice in an Alabama county with a primary care shortage for at least three years. The need is severe. By one measure, 62 of the state’s 67 counties need more front-line doctors.

“As someone originally from the small town of Demopolis in Marengo County, I’m especially excited that our expertly trained physicians will soon be serving in communities that need them so desperately,” said Dr. Selwyn Vickers, Senior Vice President for Medicine and Dean of the School of Medicine.

A significant UA initiative is the Rural Medical Scholars Program, which was established by the College of Community Health Sciences (CCHS) in 1996 to produce physicians for rural Alabama. The five-year medical education program includes a year of study after students receive their undergraduate degree and early admission to the School of Medicine.

The program has been cited nationally as a model initiative. To date, it has placed 71 physicians into practice in rural Alabama. Ten students were selected for the program’s 2018-19 academic year.

“Alabama is a disproportionately rural state, and medical education programs that develop rural physicians and other health professionals are vital,” said Dr. Richard Friend, the college’s interim Dean. “At CCHS, we have been and will continue to address these workforce needs. We are dedicated to rural health – it is a key part of our mission.”


UAB has been making a strategic push to help stabilize small hospitals across Alabama.

The UAB Health System has entered into management agreements with the J. Paul Jones Hospital in Camden and hospitals in Demopolis and Greenville, allowing them to benefit from UAB’s expertise and resources. Affiliate relationships are in place with hospitals in Florence, Anniston and Alexander City.

“Small hospitals, in particular those in Alabama’s underserved, rural counties, are under tremendous financial pressure,” said Dr. Will Ferniany, CEO of the UAB Health System. “We believe it is part of the UAB Medicine mission to help provide assistance to hospitals throughout the state and to do what we can to ensure the survival of these rural hospitals.”

The UAB Health System is also opening the Alabama Rural Hospital Resource Center to provide support for rural hospitals facing economic struggles. The center will help with purchasing, strategic planning, recruitment, compliance and other functions.

UA’s College of Community Health Sciences, meanwhile, has played a major role in keeping Pickens County healthier, thanks to an alliance formed after local officials sought help to keep their hospital in Carrollton open.

The University of Alabama-Pickens County Partnership, led by CCHS, has received a third year of state funding for ongoing and new initiatives to help improve health and well-being in the rural county.

Eleven projects that address county health issues were funded, and four recent UA graduates were hired for fellowships. The fellows, who will serve through May 2019, will implement programs and participate in seminars about health and public policy.

The partnership brings together Pickens County organizations and UA faculty and students to facilitate a sustainable model of health care delivery for the county. At the same time, it provides real-world training for UA students in medicine, nursing, social work, psychology, health education and other disciplines.

“Our College’s mission is to improve and promote the health of individuals and communities in Alabama and the region, and one of the ways we seek to do this is by engaging communities as partners, particularly in rural and underserved areas,” Dr. Friend said.

“Through this partnership, future physicians and other health care providers receive educational experiences and learning opportunities in communities, where most will practice, and we can work to sustain health care in communities that most need it.”

The University of Alabama-Pickens County Partnership, led by UA’s College of Community Health Sciences, focuses on ongoing and new initiatives to help improve health and well-being in the rural county. (Image: The University of Alabama)


The universities have other programs in place to produce health care professionals for rural Alabama and improve health care delivery to people living in those areas.

Longstanding programs in the CCHS’ Rural Health Pipeline initiative have prepared high school juniors and seniors from rural areas for opportunities in the health care profession.

A new program at UA’s Capstone College of Nursing, BAMA-Care, will train 36 primary care nurse practitioners to work in rural and underserved areas of Alabama.

A key goal of BAMA-Care is to help close the gap between physical and mental health care access and rural Alabamians, according to Dr. Robin Lawson, senior associate dean for academic programs in the Capstone College of Nursing. The program is being funded with a $650,000 federal grant.

Technology is also figuring in efforts to improve outcomes for patients in rural Alabama.

Using a $500,000 federal grant, UAB is adding 19 new locations to its telehealth network so Alabama patients can meet with medical specialists without having to travel long distances. With the help of a nurse and video conferencing, patients are able to have a full checkup with their doctors closer to home.

UAB is also collaborating with Birmingham’s Lakeshore Rehabilitation Hospital on a telehealth rehab program targeting patients living in isolated areas. Plus, the university has explored using telehealth as a way to reach HIV-positive patients in rural Alabama.

Chancellor St. John said the sweeping range of these programs demonstrates the UA System’s deep commitment to improving health care outcomes across the state.

“We have a very robust rural medicine program both in Tuscaloosa and at UAB. We are mindful of the challenges,” he said. “It doesn’t do someone any good to have a doctor they can’t get to. We are working closely with rural hospitals and health care systems around the state to meet the challenges. It is integral to our mission. ”

Dr. Eric Wallace, Medical Director of Telehealth at UAB, says expanding telehealth sites will provide speciality care to an increasing number of patients. (Image: UAB)

Republished courtesy of the University of Alabama System. For more stories like this, follow @UASystem on Twitter.

Comprising three of the most dynamic research universities in the South and a world-class medical center, The University of Alabama System is Alabama’s largest employer and a major driver for economic, intellectual, and cultural growth.

4 mins ago

Jack’s offering free coffee to teachers August 17–21 — ‘A small way we hope to say thank you’

Jack’s Family Restaurants is celebrating teachers as they kick off the 2020 school year by offering free coffee at all of its locations from August 17–21.

According to a release, all teachers can receive their free coffee from Jack’s, in the drive-thru or in the restaurant, Monday through Friday until 9:00 a.m. with a valid school ID.

No purchase is necessary to redeem the offer, and teachers can choose between a hot or iced regular-sized coffee, limit one per guest.

“Being a good neighbor and supporting the communities we serve is part of the Jack’s DNA,” stated Jack’s CEO Todd Bartmess.


“Offering free coffee to our hardworking teachers as they kick off an unusual school year is a small way we hope to say ‘thank you’ for everything they do,” he added.

Founded in 1960 in Homewood, Alabama, Jack’s Family Restaurants started as Jack’s Hamburgers in a walk-up hamburger stand that served burgers, fries, sodas and shakes.

The chain over the past 60 years has grown to almost 200 locations in four states across the South.

This is merely the latest in a long line of examples of Jack’s continuing to support its local communities as the chain grows.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

25 mins ago

Michael Jordan speaks to Univ. of Alabama football team — ‘Winning has a price’

Basketball legend Michael Jordan on Tuesday spoke via video conference to the University of Alabama football team.

The program, led by head coach Nick Saban, routinely has some of the most successful, well-known athletes and leaders from across the nation address the team each summer in preparation for the fall season.

Previous examples reported by Yellowhammer News include the late Kobe Bryant, as well as speakers from the business and political sectors such as world-famous entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk.

Alabama Athletics shared a one-minute video clip from Jordan’s virtual visit. Players seen in the video were socially distanced and wearing masks at the team facility.


“This guy — I have the most respect for, of anybody, as a competitor. This guy is a great competitor,” Saban said introducing Jordan to the team.

The Crimson Tide coach also praised Jordan in recent months during the premier of the popular 10-part documentary “The Last Dance.”

Jordan spoke to the team on Tuesday about what it takes to be a champion.

“Winning has a price,” the six-time NBA champion said. “You have to put forth the effort every single day.”

“Coaching can only give you the motivation — they can give you plays and they can give you all that — but at the end of the day, you’ve got to have self-determination. You have to want to be the best,” Jordan advised.

He added, “If you’re all on the same page and everybody wants to win, that’s the whole process. If you guys are sitting there putting on that Alabama uniform, your attitude is about winning. Winning is a part of me. I will do anything to win. Your energy should be towards winning.”


Alabama Football also shared this famous quote from Jordan in a tweet: “I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.”

The program, led by its players with support from the staff and administration, are currently trying to save the 2020 fall college football season.

RELATED: Alabama Senate majority leader to SEC: Let them play

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

59 mins ago

Alabama’s small business community needs Congress’ support

Affordable health care has long been a cause of concern for small business across our country with the cost of coverage has consistently ranked at the top of small business owners’ concerns. And now, amid a global health crisis, health coverage is more important than ever. As someone with years of experience working in the healthcare industry and alongside businesses, I have seen firsthand how the small business community faces unique challenges when it comes to employer-sponsored benefits.

There is no doubt that each employer wants to give employees the best benefits possible. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it makes small businesses competitive, attracting a more skilled workforce and helping to keep employees healthy. However, the large majority of small business owners run on extremely small margins, and as health care costs continue to rise, it is even more difficult to provide employees with quality health care coverage.


Alabama is known for our friendly small business community, inviting many small employers to plant their roots in the Yellowhammer State. This is why we’re proud to have over 380,000 small businesses that employ over 765,000 of our state’s residents. Small businesses are, and always have been, the backbone of our economy. Alabama laws historically promote competition and small business growth but despite this, we still need our federal lawmakers to support us, especially at a time when businesses are struggling.

Today, with the pandemic continuing to spread across our state, small business owners are struggling to stay in business, and they are bracing for the full financial impacts of COVID-19. It is a devastating situation to be in and our small business community cannot survive on its own.

Fortunately, we have very dedicated small business champions in Washington, D.C. who have been working tirelessly to ensure any federal COVID-19 relief includes small businesses.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Senator Doug Jones and Congresswoman Terri Sewell supported bipartisan legislation that in 2019 repealed an Obamacare tax known as the Health Insurance Tax (HIT). This erroneous tax increased the price of health insurance for small business owners. Now we need them to further continue that work and work to implement policies that will continue to lower the cost of health care for small business owners, their employees, and their families, especially at a time when having health care is so crucial. A healthy workforce that is ready, and able, to get back to work is vital to our state, and country’s economic recovery.

Small business owners want to continue to provide health care for their employees, but they need Congress’ help to do so. I ask that our elected officials continue to come together to support Alabama’s small business community, especially when it comes to lowering health care costs and making health care more affordable — both as we continue to overcome COVID-19 and long beyond.

Curtis Cannon is a Managing Partner at Axis Recovery and has over 15 years of experience working with health insurance companies, brokers and consulting firms.

1 hour ago

Doug Jones: Kamala Harris ‘exactly what we need’

U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) on Wednesday sent out a fundraising email to his supporters celebrating that his “friend” U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) has been selected as the 2020 Democratic vice presidential nominee.

Harris joins former Vice President Joe Biden on the Democratic ticket. Jones is a longtime ally of Biden and was one of the first major elected officials in the country to endorse his presidential bid this cycle. It was also announced on Tuesday shortly before Harris was named as the VP nominee that Jones will be a featured speaker at the Democratic National Convention next week.

Reacting to Harris’ selection on Wednesday, Jones wrote, “First of all, I’m proud of my friend and colleague. Her tenacity and dedication are exactly what we need to take on so many of the challenges we face, from helping save lives and livelihoods during this pandemic to finally ending systemic racism.”


Harris has previously announced support for Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, decriminalizing illegal immigration, gun confiscation and other policy proposals championed by the far-left. She even once compared ICE agents to the Ku Klux Klan.

“This election is going to come down to the contrast between unity and division, and Joe Biden and Kamala Harris know how to bring people together. In a lot of ways, it’s similar to what we saw in 2017. Everything we’re seeing shows that not only do we have to make sure everyone hears about our message of unity, but we also have to energize traditionally underrepresented communities like Black and Latinx voters,” Alabama’s junior senator added in his email. “We sure did that in 2017 – I know the power and energy of Black women and the difference their hard work made in my race.”

“Now, we can do it again, and we’ll make history by electing our first Black and South Asian woman Vice President. I’m so proud that person will be my friend and colleague,” he concluded, with the email ending with a link to a fundraising page for Jones’ campaign.

This is not the first time Jones has used Harris to solicit support for his campaign. She sent out a fundraising email for Jones last year.

The junior senator from California earlier this year also traveled to Birmingham in support of Jones’ reelection bid.

Harris during that appearance said that she and Jones “are always cuttin’ up and sending each other notes” in the Senate.

She added, “We were cuttin’ up in the impeachment hearings. Some of those words would not be spoken in church.”

Harris and Jones each voted twice to remove President Donald Trump from office at the conclusion of those impeachment hearings.

Her running mate on the Democratic ticket to unseat Trump has actively supported Jones’ campaign, as well. Biden campaigned in Alabama for Jones during the 2017 election.

Paige Lindgren, a spokesperson for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, on Wednesday noted, “Despite his claims of bipartisanship, Anti-Trump Democrat Doug Jones has hitched his wagon to a potential Biden-Harris administration.”

“By doing this in a state that overwhelming supports the President, Jones has given up on representing the conservative values that Alabamians hold true,” she concluded.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

2 hours ago

Boeing submits Next Generation Interceptor proposal that would create Alabama jobs, continue to protect American homeland

Boeing on Wednesday submitted its proposal to the U.S. Missile Defense Agency for the Next Generation Interceptor (NGI) competition, with the stakes being high for Alabama.

The company is proposing a design that leverages Boeing’s more than 60-year track record and unparalleled expertise in strategic missile and weapon systems.

The NGI will be the interceptor successor for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, currently the nation’s only defense program capable of protecting the entire United States homeland, including Alaska and Hawaii, against long-range ballistic missiles from threats such as North Korea and Iran. The GMD currently uses Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicles launched by Ground-Based Interceptors to track long-range ballistic missile threats and use collision force to destroy the target.


Boeing manages the GMD program out of Huntsville as the prime contractor for the Department of Defense. The company has led the industry team since the inception of the program in 1998 with engineers and experts who work in Alabama.

The Missile Defense Agency put out a request for proposal on the NGI in April, saying that two companies will be selected to compete to build the final interceptor. That contract award is expected later this year.

If selected, Boeing will utilize its proven capabilities and a best-of-industry team, based primarily out of Huntsville alongside its Missile and Weapon Systems division headquarters, to ensure a unique, state-of-the-art offering is delivered on time.

“Boeing’s NGI proposal delivers unmatched performance, affordability and reliability for the nation and the warfighter,” stated Norm Tew, Missile and Weapon Systems vice president and general manager, and Huntsville site senior executive for Boeing. “Building upon our prior investments and proven technologies, our innovative proposal offers a creative, compelling and game-changing technical approach to outpace, out-innovate, deter and defeat rapidly evolving advanced threats.”

Boeing already directly employs more than 3,000 people in the Yellowhammer State, with approximately 5,400 employees and retirees being residents of the state. However, the company’s economic impact is much larger than those impressive numbers alone.

As of 2018, Boeing generated an estimated $2.3 billion of economic activity in the state annually. The company spent $606 million with nearly 200 suppliers, supporting about 18,000 direct and indirect jobs as of the latest available data.

The company’s NGI proposal could be key to continued job growth in Alabama.

“This program will create 1,000 new Boeing, supplier and other local jobs across the regional economy,” concluded Tew. “Boeing looks forward to continuing its strong relationship with Alabama, which spans nearly 60 years.”

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn