A new partnership between Western Carolina University and two local hospitals is designed to ensure access to quality health care in North Carolina’s westernmost counties through a series of activities, including an effort to increase the number of family nurse practitioners working in the region. Leaders from WCU and Harris Regional Hospital and Swain Community Hospital in October announced The Ascent Partnership, which also encompasses the hospitals’ support for athletics and the arts in the region, opportunities for community engagement on wellness, and expanded local availability of needed health care services.
As a key part of the initiative, Harris Regional and Swain Community hospitals will cover the total educational costs for three students to enroll in WCU’s family nurse practitioner program who have committed to working for one of the hospitals. One student will be chosen to receive the award and begin the two-year program over each of the next three years.
Rural Western North Carolina faces a shortage of physicians, and family nurse practitioners are qualified, cost-effective primary care providers who can help meet the increasing demand for high-quality health care in the region, said WCU Chancellor David Belcher. “This award program will enable the students to graduate debt-free and will provide guaranteed employment upon degree completion, which certainly will be important factors for the students,” Belcher said. “But the real value of this program is the impact it will have on our community. It will help meet a critical need for additional primary health care providers.”
Steve Heatherly MBA ’99, chief executive officer for Harris Regional and Swain Community hospitals, both of which are part of Duke LifePoint Healthcare, called the partnership a formalization of the hospitals’ commitment to the community through a decades-long collaboration with WCU to provide training to future health care professionals. “The training and placement of highly skilled primary care providers is a critical element of enhancing the quality of life in our region. However, full tuition support for nurse practitioner students is but one facet of The Ascent Partnership,” Heatherly said. “The partnership also is focused on improving the health and well-being of the communities we collectively serve through collaboration and innovation.”
The hospitals and university created a sports medicine program about 15 years ago that serves WCU’s student-athletes, provides training for physical therapists and sports medicine clinicians, and has placed athletic trainers in 10 high schools in the region to provide access to a coordinated system of care for nearly 1,500 student-athletes and their families annually, he said. Last fall saw the opening of a primary care clinic called Harris Family Care-Cullowhee inside the WCU Health and Human Sciences Building, where residents of the community have better access to care and WCU students have a place to hone their health care skills.
The Ascent Partnership also features a community education component with a regular speakers series highlighting experts from the university and the local hospitals, and it will be the foundation for the hospitals’ ongoing support of WCU’s Valley of the Lilies Half Marathon and 5K, Catamount athletics programs, and arts functions occurring on campus through WCU’s Friends of the Arts organization.