UNCG Cuts Down on Wait Times for Rural Health Care

Posted on June 28, 2024

UNCG alumna Catlin Torres ’23 sits at a desk in a health clinic.
Catlin Torres ’23 works at the Belmont Medical Associates clinic, courtesy of an AmeriCorps MedServe fellowship.

Students who graduate with health degrees from UNC Greensboro will find their skills in high demand. The need for health care is felt in all areas of the United States, but there are many communities that routinely find themselves underserved.

It’s a need that Catlin Torres ’23 is answering since completing her bachelor of science in biology with a minor in chemistry at UNCG. She was accepted into the 2023-2025 AmeriCorps MedServe fellowship to work at Belmont Medical Associates in Reidsville, North Carolina, not far from her hometown in Rockingham County.

“I’ve always just been interested in becoming a primary care provider, and I would like to serve in areas where they are needed,” says Torres.

While the small private practice sees patients from across Rockingham County, others drive from Guilford County (30 minutes away), Alamance County (45 minutes), and the city of Lexington (an hour).

“Some people make the drive from out of state,” says Torres. “And some people moved for retirement, but they like to come back to their primary doctor. Our patients are spread all over.”

Problems Finding Providers

A lack of health care options has been a troubling trend for rural and remote areas of the United States. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), more than 100 rural hospitals, or four percent, closed across the United States between 2013 and 2020. Six of those were in North Carolina.

Torres witnessed the pressure it puts on rural patients when a neurology office in Reidsville closed, impacting many of Belmont’s patients who need pain management. “We had to start referring patients to Greensboro or different areas,” she says. “A lot of our patients are older. They can’t drive that far or it’s harder for them to find transportation.”

UNCG alumna Catlin Torres '23 with the staff at a health clinic where she works as a fellow.
Torres (front row, second from left) and the Belmont Medical Associates staff in Reidsville.

The GAO report found that Medicare Free-For-Service beneficiaries living in areas where rural hospitals closed were less likely to be healthy, with higher instances of conditions such as high blood pressure and cholesterol, diabetes, congestive heart failure, and depression.

Health care ServiceMedian Travel in 2012Median Travel in 2018
Alcohol or drug treatment5.5 mi44.6 mi
Chemotherapy3.4 mi22.8 mi
Coronary care unit4.5 mi35.1 mi
Dental2.4 mi36.0 mi
Emergency departments3.3 mi24.2 mi
General inpatient3.4 mi23.9 mi
Neonatal nursery2.5 mi32.9 mi
Obstetrics3.5 mi22.8 mi
Optometry2.5 mi48.1 mi
Pediatric intensive care2.9 mi78.2 mi
Source: GAO

The issue affects all regions of the state – mountains, coast, and Piedmont. “In North Carolina, 72 of the 100 counties are rural or have some aspect of their county that is rural,” says Dr. Audrey Snyder. The professor and associate dean for community engagement and academic partnerships in the School of Nursing has spent many years researching and advocating for health care access worldwide.

Snyder says children from smaller communities may grow up with fewer role models in health care professions to inspire and encourage them while attaining such a challenging degree. “There’s a higher percentage of our rural residing prospective students who are first generation college students,” she says.

Even for those who do pursue a career in health, Snyder says workers are more inclined to stay where there are ample resources and an extensive peer network, which tend to be in cities. Greensboro alone has three major institutions: Cone, Novant, and Atrium Health.

“Let’s say you’re a family nurse practitioner who practices in a rural community,” says Snyder. “You don’t have a lot of backup. You can’t just walk into the next room and ask questions or have a person you can call for support.”

Cost is also an issue, says Torres. “A lot of the people in my cohort have to look for places to live. And we live on a stipend, which has to stretch for housing costs.”

Building a Network for Providers 

Students who come to UNCG from rural communities may qualify for federal financial aid specifically intended to cultivate a new generation of providers who will take those skills back home after graduation. Torres was part of Guarantee Scholars, a flagship program to build a cohort community while minimizing student debt for its members.

In the College of Arts and Sciences, students like Torres lay the groundwork as undergraduates in biology and chemistry, making them highly attractive to competitive professional graduate school programs. Torres took the pre-physician assistant track, which sets up students with advisors who help tailor their undergraduate coursework in preparation for a professional school.

She first heard about MedServe at an information session hosted by UNCG and later connected with its executive director, Amanda Gallina. “With graduation coming up, I had a lot on my plate,” says Torres. “But she sent an email asking if I wanted to talk about the opportunities that they had. She told me they were looking for someone for Belmont, and that it seemed like the right fit for me.”

Along with on-site experience, MedServe lets Torres attend skill summits at hospitals, learning alongside other fellows in the program. “It’s just a really great program where you can build a community of people doing the same thing,” she says.

A group of healthcare students and alumni smile for a group photo outside.
Torres (left) attended a skills summit for AmeriCorps MedServe fellows in Winston-Salem.

UNCG Bridges the Gap

Health care institutions and universities like UNCG are working on solving health care disparities – from utilizing the growing popularity of telehealth to forging partnerships between rural practices and urban medical centers.

The many health-related programs in UNCG’s Schools and Colleges cater to each student’s strengths and previous experience, preparing new caregivers and specialists. Torres’ pre-PA track is just one of ten pre-professional tracks, with others for aspiring nurses, doctors, therapists, pharmacists, veterinarians, and dentists.

In the School of Health and Human Sciences, students may focus on communication disorders and aging issues or pursue community-oriented work through public health education, nutrition, or recreation.

The School of Nursing, which was recently award $2.4 million by the UNC System Office to enroll more students, has the traditional bachelor of science in nursing (BSN), as well as an RN to BSN program for working registered nurses and a veterans access program for service members to transition to nursing. In addition to other programs such as nurse practitioner, certified nurse anesthetists, and leadership programs focused on providing services to the underserved and rural areas.

“We’re trying to increase the number of students coming from those rural areas and provide support in their programs, whether it’s a BSN or a nurse practitioner degree, so they can go on and get an advanced degree,” says Snyder. “We hope that by giving them experiences in rural and underserved areas, they may want to work in one of those areas when they graduate.”

Dr. Audrey Snyder and the School of Nursing launched the Minerva Mobile Health Unit in August 2023 to deliver UNCG students and faculty nurse practitioners straight to underserved communities. “Mobile health care is a wave of the future, getting access to people where they live, where they work, where they go to school,” says Snyder.

Read more.

UNCG School of Nursing Dean Debra Barksdale and Dr. Audrey Snyder beside the Minerva Mobile Health truck.

As Torres begins her second year of the fellowship and gets ready to apply for graduate school, one experience with the physician’s assistant at Belmont stood out to her. “An older Hispanic woman who spoke minimal English came in,” she says. “The PA took her time and brought me in to translate. She was very descriptive. She wanted to make sure this woman knew what was going on.”

Torres hopes to bring that type of compassionate care to more people. “I’m definitely seeing that need for new providers who will deliver various services for rural communities,” she says.

Story by Janet Imrick, University Communications 
Photography courtesy of Catlin Torres, Belmont Medical Associates 
Additional photography by Sean Norona, University Communications 

Pre-vet student meets with advisor in Nursing Instructional Building.

Connect your major with one of ten pre-professional tracks.


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