Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series analyzing President Roderick McDavis’ decade at Ohio University

When Ohio University President Roderick McDavis first took office, he had more than just the university in mind. In fact, he was thinking of the whole region.

McDavis said in his 2004 inaugural address that he planned to work collaboratively with medical facilities in Southeast Ohio to strengthen local health care.

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It has — depending on which ranking you analyze.

Three years ago, Athens was ranked last in the state for clinical care, according to the National County Health Rankings compiled by the University of Wisconsin.

Now, Athens is ranked above more than a quarter of Ohio’s 88 counties. 

“I would say that, because I have been around health care in this area for a long time, I think that the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine has definitely helped improve health care in Southeast Ohio and Ohio,” said Kathy Trace, director of area health education center and community health programs at OU-HCOM. “But we’re just a piece of the health care in the region.”

OU-HCOM’s community health programs’ budget, composed of the college’s money as well as grants and donations, has increased more than fivefold since 2003 and now operates with more than $1.6 million, Trace said.

Metrics that measure health care in Athens County are somewhat conflicting. 

Overall health outcome rankings, which consider length and quality of life of a county’s residents, have dropped nearly 15 spots in the past five years, placing Athens County in the bottom half of the state.

The county’s health factors, which consider clinical care, the environment and health behaviors, have steadily improved in the rankings — passing nearly a third of Ohio counties.

Nonetheless, Southeast Ohio continues to lag behind the state’s standard for clinical care, making the work OU students, faculty and staff do that much more important, said Heather Brandt, a second-year student in OU-HCOM.

Last year, staff and volunteers from OU-HCOM’s community health programs traveled nearly 11,000 miles throughout 16 counties in Southeast Ohio. They provided discounted health care to more than 20,600 people, according to their annual report.

Those services include everything from free medical and childhood immunization clinics and free screening procedures, said Kenneth Johnson, dean of OU-HCOM.

“We place (students) for early clinical experiences ... out in the community,” Johnson said.

For Brandt, those experiences have included hours spent alongside medical professionals at the mobile health clinic, which travels throughout Southeast Ohio.

“We had one patient that was on this very very expensive medication and he stopped taking it all together and we thought he was being noncompliant ... but we didn’t realize that he couldn’t afford it,” said Brandt, who also is the student director of community outreach in OU-HCOM.

Poorer patients may pay less for their medication through the program, she said.

OU-HCOM students logged more than 3,700 volunteer hours in 2013-14, Johnson said.

“It’s really kind of the character of our students,” he said.

About 15 percent of OU-HCOM graduates go on to serve some of the most vulnerable populations in Ohio in rural and underserved areas, Johnson said. OU-HCOM is also the top producer of primary care physicians in the state.

“Part of the secret sauce for us is the kind of students that we draw,” Johnson said. “We draw a lot from rural and underserved settings in the first place.”

Health care partnerships go beyond Athens County as well, reaching Cleveland and Columbus through relationships with the Cleveland Clinic and OhioHealth, where OU-HCOM students can complete their education, Johnson said.

On campus, hearing, speech and language clinics, Red Cross blood drives and educational opportunities are among the efforts to improve local health care. 

“What we’re doing is really helping the communities in Southeast Ohio and Ohio,” Trace said. “But we’re also getting students out and helping groom the next healthcare leaders for the future and really focusing on those (patients) that are underserved.”

@ohitchcock

oh271711@ohio.edu

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