NEW LEXINGTON — Dr. Darcy Cook is the face of a health-care transformation taking hold in medically underserved Perry County.
Cook could have practiced anywhere after she graduated last year from Ohio State University’s College of Dentistry. But the daughter of Appalachian Ohio was intent on returning to her home region to practice. She is needed.
Cook works at the Hopewell Health Center in McArthur in Vinton County. She plans to move to the Hopewell Health Center in New Lexington in Perry County when that clinic opens a dental wing this year. It also will provide clinical training to students studying to become dental hygienists in a new program that Hocking College plans to start next year.
The emerging, interwoven plans all are part of a strong push to increase access to health care in Perry County, while also educating and training the local workforce for jobs in the health field.
The effort is led by Perry County’s access-to-care committee, which includes the county health department, the nonprofit Hopewell Health Centers Inc., Hocking College, Ohio University and other partners. It is starting to bear fruit:
• Genesis HealthCare System in Zanesville announced plans last month for a $9.4 million medical center in Somerset that will include an emergency department and outpatient care. The Genesis Perry County Medical Center is scheduled to break ground in the spring and open in 2018.
• Hopewell’s plans to add dental services to its New Lexington clinic tie in with Hocking College’s plans for a new dental-hygienist program in the 2018-19 academic year, pending program accreditation. Students would take classes at the college’s main campus in Nelsonville or at the New Lexington branch campus, where a fully equipped laboratory is to be built with about $1 million that the college received from the most recent state capital-improvements budget. Students would receive their clinical training at Hopewell’s new dental office.
• Ohio University is working with Hopewell and other partners to open a clinic in New Straitsville that would offer primary care, mental-health services, physical therapy and other services. Hopewell would staff it with a doctor or nurse-practitioner and a couple of nurses. It also would be staffed with students from OU’s Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine and students studying nursing and other health professions who are interested in picking up clinical experience in a rural setting. OU is seeking $900,000 in grant funding, and planners are working to raise about $178,000 to renovate a building for the clinic.
The access-to-care committee formed and began meeting regularly in 2013, a year after data collected by the Perry County Health Department in a community health assessment showed troubling numbers. Among them: The county of about 36,000 people ranks poorly in rates of obesity, smoking, infant mortality and other health indicators, said county Health Commissioner Angela DeRolph.
The partnerships and connections formed through the committee’s work show that despite the challenges in the poorer, rural county about 50 miles southeast of Columbus, there are ways to deliver health care to county residents, DeRolph said.
Currently, county residents are served by seven primary-care physicians. Beyond that, they must either travel for health care — including emergency services — or do without.
“It’s bringing the care to the people,” said Genesis President and CEO Matt Perry. “This is something the community has needed for a long, long time.”
The additional services will augment the work of the seven physicians.
“We want to meet as many needs for our rural area as possible,” said Bonnie Allen Smith, who, as dean of Hocking College’s health and nursing division is working to develop the dental-hygienist program.
Appalachian Ohio children have a nearly 60 percent higher rate of tooth decay than Ohio as a whole. There also are fewer dentists. There is one dentist per 1,874 people in Ohio. But in the Appalachian part of the state, the numbers are one per 3,138 people, Smith said.
Dental care is an important part of overall health care, Cook said.
“We need to help with education,” she said. “It’s not just access to care. We need to do a better job getting oral-health education out there. Some people are under the impression that you only see a dentist when you have a toothache, instead of going twice a year to prevent that toothache.”
Cook is looking forward to helping train the 20 students expected to initially enroll in the Hocking College program. Dental hygienists clean teeth, help with imaging and provide patient education.
The access-to-care committee members are excited that Cook will practice dentistry in Perry County.
“She exemplifies the dream of the committee: a local person coming back to practice,” Smith said.
Cook, 36, said she never considered practicing anywhere else. She grew up in New Straitsville, where her parents still run a convenience store, and trained in dental-assisting jobs under dentists in Logan and New Lexington before she decided to become a dentist.
“I remember as a kid, a lot of things we did without or had to drive a long way for,” she said. “It’s a chain we need to break. We need to give these people care without sending them a long way away for it.”
The Delyn Center, a combination health clinic and community center being developed in a former Depression-era movie theater that has been vacant in downtown New Straitsville for the past 15 years, is intended to provide more access to health care while serving as a training ground for OU students. Planners are still assembling the funding and hope to have the clinic open in late 2018.
Sherry Shamblin, Hopewell’s chief operating officer, said she hopes some of the students who volunteer at the New Straitsville clinic will become interested in practicing rural medicine.
“It is difficult to attract people who will work in and stay in this county for very long,” Shamblin said.
As health commissioner, DeRolph said she has some ideas to address that: the access-to-care committee could develop a program enlisting local students, perhaps starting in middle school, to shadow local doctors, dentists and others to see whether they might be interested in health-care careers some day.
“I’m very excited what the future will hold going forward with all these projects,” she said.