Nurses focus on ‘community medicine’ to restore healthcare desert
There is a new healthcare provider in north Baton Rouge. That news alone should spark hope in many residents from Zachary, through Baker and Scotlandville, and on to Mid-City. But most residents do not know that the Champion Medical Center on Howell Blvd. now houses the Louisiana Healthcare Services and its three providers. Open every day, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., the new clinic provides medical care for the entire family, a Medicaid application center, family planning services, as well as onsite lab services.
Most importantly, Louisiana Healthcare Services provides these services in the middle of a healthcare desert in East Baton Rouge Parish. “We are a drop of water in this desert,” said registered nurse Nicole Thomas. She and Leah Cullins, FNP, own Louisiana Healthcare Services which opened at 7855 Howell Blvd. in June 2017.
Thomas said when she and Cullins began planning the clinic, they looked for an area with the greatest need. “The first thing both of us said was north Baton Rouge,” Thomas said. “Knowing that there were a lot of things that were going to fight against us. Lack of resources are in this area, and not just health resources but food resources; resources period are just scarce,” she said knew that those would be a battle for us, we decided to push through them.”
In 2013, Earl K. Long Memorial Hospital was closed then later demolished in 2015 and replaced with the LSU Health Baton Rouge North Clinic with 15 treatment chairs. An ER was opened in 2017 as an 8,800-square foot addition built adjacent to the existing clinic. The facility includes an infusion clinic and services for primary care and oncology. It sits on Airline Hwy, 3 miles away from Louisiana Health Services. The Jewel Newman Community Center still houses the Baton Rouge Primary Care Collaborative Health Center at 2013 Central Road—nearly 5 miles north. And the Margaret Dumas Mental Health Center is open a mile away on 3843 Harding Blvd for mental health and substance abuse treatment. None of these facilities are designed for patients to regularly see the same health care provider in order to manage their health. Similarly, there are no other doctor offices or primary care facilities within the five surrounding zip codes.
“There have been so many barriers to care for so long in the community,” said Thomas who grew up in the same community. As a student at Glen Oaks Medical Magnet High School, she was introduced to healthcare through the school’s medical training classes. She graduated from Southern University School of Nursing and worked as a nurse at what she called “the best hospital ever,” Earl K. Long Memorial Hospital, then to home health, and managed care with United Healthcare. It opened her eyes to the business of healthcare although she still had a “yearning for the clinical aspect.”
She said she began asking herself what more she could do to have an impact. “What legacy am I going to leave behind?” she asked. “For me coming back to open a clinic here was purposeful. I realized that every single step of my journey that I went through, every job, every up, and every down was to get me to prepare me to be here,” said Thomas.
“Here” for both she and Cullins is in north Baton Rouge providing what they called “community medicine.”
“This (at LHS) is where you come to establish a relationship with your doctor,” said Collins. “This is where you come for the personalized care.” As a child, Cullins watched this community medicine being practiced by Black doctors in South Baton Rouge. “I saw how these doctors cared for patients. Taking whatever they could afford to pay at the time. Sometimes it was some type of commodity or produce; most times patients paid in cash.”
Thomas said she saw the same community medicine being practiced while she was a high schooler completing clinical rotations with nurses at Earl K. Long Hospital emergency room. “This nurse gave it literally her all. Seeing how she was able to truly provide care for the patient and make an impact,” she said. “You change the entire course of their lives.”
As a result, Louisiana Healthcare Services allows patients to pay a minimal fee of $65 for visits without insurance and providers make house calls to care for established patients.
“This is the type of care people deserve,” Cullins said. As a nurse practitioner, she is the primary care physician for hundreds of patients.
Along with family care, the clinic offers wellness screenings, immunizations, HIV and chronic disease management, illness treatment, and family planning services. The extended hours of 8am to 8pm allow LHS to accept walk-ins. There are three providers—one bilingual—and an onsite lab. Medicaid application assistance are available. Cullins said they partner with specialists across the city who provide obstetrics, cardiac, dermatology, and pharmaceutical services for LHS patients. In the near future, LHS will house specialists “so that our patients won’t have to travel out of their communities — miles from their homes—to be cared for,” Cullins said.
“We’ve hit many brick walls,” said Thomas. “We are writing our own blueprint as we go. We are doing what matters in order to impact this community the most.”
For instance, in January, a team from LHS joined volunteers with LaMOM at the Baton Rouge Free Health Clinic and provided dental, medical, and vision care to more than 1,400 residents over three days. “This service was so needed, and with all the providers and medical staff there, we couldn’t assist everyone. There were so many,” said Thomas.
“People stood out in the freezing cold as early as 4am, lined up waiting for the doors to open,” said Cullins. Many of them had not been seen by doctors for years. Cullins remembered siting with one patient who need to received dental care but their blood pressure was too high. “They were hypertensive and had no medicine and no doctor,” she said. After sitting with them and explaining the severity of their health and its impact on their teeth, Cullins said she was surprised when the patient said, “You’re the first doctor to sit next to me and touch my hand.” After some time, Cullins said, they were able to lower the patient’s blood pressure so that the dentist could repair her teeth.
“We’ve got to start seeing doctors who care about us,” said Cullins. One of their goals is to build on their partnerships with providers and specialists who will care for patients on site. “We (LHS) are needed,” she said.
The surmounting HIV and AIDS cases in Baton Rouge is also a major concern for Collins and Thomas. The city is number one in the nation for new HIV cases. In 2015, more than 3,700 residents reported having the disease and the number is growing quickly. “We can prevent this and we can help our patients live longer with the disease,” said Cullins who specializes in HIV/AIDS management.
“This is a vulnerable community, from hypertension, diabetes, HIV, and other conditions” said Thomas. “Their care starts with a primary care physician not in urgent care or the emergency room.”
“We both know how it feels to be disadvantaged and being told no for services…This is a legacy we’re building here,” Cullins said.
By Candace J. Semien
Jozef Syndicate reporter
Photos by Hodge Media Group