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Heritage College Joins Two Other Colleges in Historic Pact to Improve Appalachia's Health

PIKEVILLE, KY – In a step that holds great promise for medically underserved populations in central Appalachia, three osteopathic medical schools in three states — including Ohio University’s Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine — have affirmed their commitment to working together in a new consortium.

The aim of the Central Appalachian Consortium of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (CACCOM) is to collaborate on implementing innovative strategies that measurably improve health status in the region, by addressing how osteopathic physicians are trained. The signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on November 9 marks a major step toward achieving that aim. As a first step, Consortium researchers will assess the health care workforce in central Appalachia, and examine how each of the colleges prepares physicians, to determine ways they can better fit their medical education strategies to meeting the region’s health care needs.

Signing the MOU were leaders from the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine based in Athens, OH (Heritage College); Lincoln Memorial University DeBusk College of Osteopathic Medicine in Harrogate, TN (LMU-DCOM); and University of Pikeville – Kentucky College of Osteopathic Medicine in Pikeville, KY (KYCOM).

While an earlier MOU had formalized the colleges’ agreement to pursue a consortium, the new document lays out specific plans and funding for joint research, taking CACCOM from the drawing board phase into working collaboration.

Funding for this work will come out of an historic $105 million gift, made to the Heritage College in 2011 by the Ohio-based Osteopathic Heritage Foundation (OHF). As Heritage College Executive Dean Kenneth Johnson, D.O., notes, “Creating this consortium was one of the major goals we committed to as part of the OHF’s transformational Vision 2020 award.”

The head of the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM) welcomed the Consortium. “This new group will help the osteopathic medical community explore the many possibilities for innovation focused on primary care research and medical education,” says President and CEO Stephen C. Shannon, D.O., M.P.H. “The Consortium also has the potential to foster a strong culture of collaboration, empowering colleges of osteopathic medicine to more effectively synergize resources, share research-based innovations, and ultimately improve patient outcomes in the areas of primary care.

All three CACCOM member schools are based in rural sections of central Appalachia, with high levels of medically underserved communities and significant health professional shortages. In their missions, all accept some responsibility for the health of their home areas.

The OHF approved a portion of its 2011 gift to support the start-up and development of a consortium focused on central Appalachia.

OHF President and CEO Richard A. Vincent says Consortium members “are committed to collaboratively serve the central Appalachia region and advance access to quality health and medical care, as evidenced by the signing of this historical memorandum of understanding. The Osteopathic Heritage Foundation is proud to be a part of this initiative.”

Augmenting the OHF funds, each school will contribute in-kind personnel resources, supplies and travel expenses. Eventually, costs associated with the consortium will be absorbed into college operating budgets, to make the Consortium sustainable.

The group’s first major task will be to develop and implement innovations in the way osteopathic physicians are trained, to improve access to health care in the region. Researchers will assess the state of the region’s health care workforce, and produce a document summarizing their findings, and providing tools and methods that schools can use to create new, customized strategies for physician workforce preparation. The Heritage College has become home to the lead researcher, faculty member Sebastián Díaz, Ph.D., associate professor of family medicine.

“Our college is proud to be able to play a central role in building research capacity for the group,” says Johnson of the Heritage College. “This will provide a structure for collaboration among these colleges to make significant, region-wide impact on the health status of vulnerable populations throughout central Appalachia.”

Each school will complete a self-assessment, looking at “levers” under its control — such as admission policies, curriculum and clinical placements — and how they can be used to impact the health care workforce. The focus will be on actions the three member schools can do better together than alone.

The Consortium has the support and engagement of federal agencies including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; directors of the Office of Rural Health Policy, National Center for Health Workforce Analysis, Office of Planning and Evaluation, and multiple Rural Health Research Centers; and the staff of the Appalachian Regional Commission. Marcia Brand, who during her 2009-2015 service as deputy director of the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) was a strong supporter of the Consortium, says the project has great potential for positive change.

“I look forward to hearing about the Consortium’s progress and its impact on the health outcomes of people living in Appalachia,” Brand says. ”The collaboration between the three colleges of osteopathic medicine has tremendous potential to leverage community, state and federal resources. It is my hope that this effort will be the catalyst for significant and sustained improvements in the region’s health care.”