HCHF and Dogwood Health Trust Team up to Support Increased Access to Healthcare for the Plateau and Surrounding Communities!

Highlands Cashiers Health Foundation (HCHF) and Dogwood Health Trust (“Dogwood”) have joined forces in support of expanding primary care services on the plateau through establishment of Blue Ridge Health – Highlands Cashiers, a new health center which will open in late June.

“We could not be more grateful to Dogwood Health Trust for partnering with us as an initial funder of our current highest priority says Robin Tindall, CEO HCHF. “We hope that our generous donor community will join Dogwood in supporting primary care on the plateau, and we look forward to introducing everyone to new physicians in the weeks and months ahead.”

HCHF has made great strides toward its mission to improve the health and well-being of Highlands, Cashiers and surrounding communities. Since February 2019, the Foundation has awarded over $3 million in grants to 75 organizations and has also led extensive efforts to decrease the spread of COVID-19 across the plateau through school screenings, community testing, and COVID-19 vaccination clinics.

As these measures continue to benefit communities throughout the area, the Foundation is now turning its attention to resolving a problem that has long plagued the plateau: insufficient access to primary healthcare services.

Like many rural areas across the country, in recent years the plateau has experienced significant difficulty recruiting and retaining primary care practitioners. In the past decade, eight of ten local physicians have stopped practicing on the plateau. A shortage of physicians can have dire consequences for the communities affected – a reality that was underscored during local listening sessions conducted by the Foundation. Without exception, every participating organization cited limited access to affordable healthcare as being among the top three contributors to systemic community problems.

Given its reach and capacity, the Foundation was uniquely equipped to respond when called upon to help resolve this escalating problem. Following a thorough needs assessment and extensive research over the course of two years, a collaborative solution was conceived, and plans are now well underway for the opening of a new, comprehensive family medicine center, Blue Ridge Health – Highlands Cashiers.

Operated by Blue Ridge Community Health Services, Inc. in collaboration with Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC), the new health center will serve as a Rural Teaching Practice where UNC School of Medicine students and MAHEC Family Practice Residents will become acquainted with our unique community while providing quality primary care during their rural rotations under the direction of the health center’s fulltime, experienced physicians. This innovative approach will establish a pipeline of future primary care practitioners who will gain a heightened desire to settle and practice in rural communities – something that fewer than 3% of North Carolina’s medical school graduates presently choose to do.

The plateau area’s rural location and demographic makeup factor into its designation by the Health Resources and Services Administration (an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) as both a Healthcare Provider Shortage Area (HSPA) and a Medically Underserved Area (MUA). These designations are indicators that at current levels, the number of physicians does not meet the plateau’s population health needs.

“HCHF has put together an innovative solution to increase access to healthcare in its surrounding rural communities.  With Dogwood’s health and wellness strategic priority in mind, we are pleased to partner in this collaborative initiative by partially funding the first-year start-up costs to grow the number of providers serving the rural Highlands Cashiers Plateau area, and to expand access to the broad range of services offered by Blue Ridge Health,” said Dr. Susan Mims, Interim CEO of Dogwood Heath Trust.

The health center, located between Cashiers and Highlands on the hospital campus in the Jane Woodruff Clinic, will serve patients with two physicians whose combined experience and skill sets make them a synergistic pair and a perfect addition to the mountain’s medical community. Ann Davis, MD has been a family medicine doctor for 10 years, with 5 years of experience as a teacher for medical residents. Kristy Fincher, DO will treat all patients from infants to seniors. Dr. Fincher has extensive experience in sports medicine and a true love of treating the whole family.

HCHF will seek donations from the community to fulfill its “Leap of Faith” five-year commitment to financially support the health center. Dr. Walter Clark, Board Chair of HCHF said, “We invite everyone on the plateau to join us in supporting the establishment of a lasting solution to ensure high quality, sustainable primary care on the Highlands-Cashiers Plateau for generations to come.”  We hope you will join us in Lifting Health and Well-Being, Together.