An empty patient room is not the norm in the Rockbridge area, designated as a medically underserved region. Photo by Leslie Yevak

By Leslie Yevak

A coalition of Rockbridge area health organizations is requesting community input to help identify and address unmet health needs in the area.

Carilion Stonewall Jackson Hospital, the Rockbridge Area Health Center and the local health department are spearheading a reassessment. They are working alongside other local health organizations, law enforcement, schools and transportation services.

Possible increases in federal funding are part of their motivation. But Holly Ostby, community health coordinator at Carilion Stonewall Jackson, said the project really focuses on the patients.

“It’s all about residents in the community,” Ostby said. “Our purpose is to assess the needs of our community for the folks who live here.”

Medically underserved

The Rockbridge area is already classified as medically underserved by the federal government. Nearly 40 percent of the Rockbridge area population is uninsured, and an above-average number of county residents are living below 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline, The Rockbridge Report reported in 2013.

The reassessment will identify the four priority health needs in the Rockbridge area and develop a plan to address them. Ostby said that should make it easier to receive federal funding to improve local health services.

“Having such a comprehensive, community-wide needs assessment makes it much easier for any organization within the community to apply for grants and funding for specific services,” she said.

Following the last assessment in 2012, the Rockbridge Area Free Clinic won enough funding to become a federally qualified health center.

Katy Datz, director of development and outreach at Rockbridge Area Health Center. Photo by Leslie Yevak

Katy Datz, director of development and outreach at the Rockbridge Area Health Center, said the center expanded its eligibility requirements to welcome people with higher income levels, but who might still lack insurance.

Ostby said transforming the free clinic into a health center expanded health care options for the Rockbridge community.

“[Now] it’s for folks who tend to fall into the cracks and have a hard time truly accessing services,” Ostby said.

The assessment first evaluates secondary data from state and federal sources, including income levels, demographics and housing. But surveys are also available to anyone in the Rockbridge area, and focus groups are open to the public to discuss the community’s health needs.

Ostby said the coalition uses the surveys to target residents who have a hard time accessing health services.

“We are purposely trying to oversample the most vulnerable population,” Ostby said, “which is why we put these surveys in areas where we see most of those patients.”

Paper copies of the survey are available in the hospital’s emergency department, the Rockbridge Area Health Center, the health department and the Maury River Senior Center in Buena Vista. It can also be accessed online at

A focus group geared toward Spanish-speaking residents will be held April 13 at 10 a.m. at Don Tequila restaurant in Lexington. Another focus group for health center patients will be held April 21 at 5:30 p.m. at the Rockbridge Area Health Center.

After the 2012 assessment, the health center received a $154,000 grant from the Virginia Health Care Foundation to hire a full-time dentist and expand its dental services. It now accepts children under Medicaid, who previously had very little access to dental care. It also received $775,000 in federal money for other programs.

Identifying top health priorities

The four priority issues identified in 2012 included access to health services; mental health; oral health; and fitness, nutrition and obesity. Ostby said it is hard to predict what the new priority issues will be, but she suspects they will be similar to those identified in 2012.

“Three years is not a lot of time to affect change on a community-wide level,” Ostby said. “But I do hope that we will see some change.”

She said she hopes the new assessment reveals big improvements in oral health since 2012. But because the Rockbridge community is small and rural, available resources are limited for immediate improvements, she said.

Datz said it is important for the assessment to include feedback from Rockbridge area residents. The health organizations can then respond to their patients by providing services that correlate directly with the community’s needs.

The health center uses the assessment as an opportunity to get closer to its patients and their concerns,

The Rockbridge Area Health Center offers affordable health care to patients, including those who are uninsured or on Medicaid. Photo by Leslie Yevak

Datz said.

“It allows us to build relationships [with residents] that some organizations may not have,” she said.

Ostby said she looks forward to 10 years down the line when trends are more identifiable.

“It gives you something to work with, a starting place, so that you can measure what your progress is,” Ostby said.

The assessment is ongoing, and the data and information will not be compiled until this summer. A final report should be available by September, Ostby said.

Each health organization will then develop its own implementation plan that responds to the priority health needs established in the new assessment.


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