By Jeannine Jabaay
Turnagain Times Correspondent
The number of rural medical clinics around Turnagain Arm may be increasing. The current lack of available medical care along the arm has local residents seeking change, and they’re using the Hope Clinic as an example.
On Aug. 26, Sen. Lisa Murkowski visited the Hope Clinic with the board of directors of the Girdwood Health Clinic. Murkowski wanted to see firsthand the positive impact of a local medical facility. She also wanted to find out if the Hope Clinic could be reproduced in other rural areas such as Cooper Landing, Moose Pass and Portage.
As a Girdwood resident, Murkowski stateds she frequents the Girdwood Health Clinic.
“I remember when the Hope residents were working so hard to make their clinic happen,” she told a group of people at the clinic. “There is no one size fits all in our rural areas. I had heard about what the board was doing here and wanted to see it in person.”
The Hope Clinic opened its doors in January 2013 through a community effort, led in great part by the Board of Directors of the Girdwood Health Clinic and Hope residents, including Rochelle Morris of the Alaska Dacha.
The Hope Clinic operates as a satellite facility of the Girdwood Health Clinic. Regarding Murkowski’s visit, Morris said, “Lisa has a strong desire to see medicine available in rural areas.”
Before the opening of the Hope Clinic, residents with medical emergencies and health issues had to drive 50 minutes to Girdwood, and often an additional 45 minutes to Anchorage. Now, with modern telecommunication technology known as telemedicine, the Hope Clinic technicians are able to obtain remote diagnosis and treatment from the Girdwood nurse practitioners. Using encrypted data via two-way video, email and imagery, the Hope Clinic operates without staffing a fully accredited doctor or nurse practitioner.
The highest level of service provider who works at the Hope Clinic is Valerie DeFrance, a paramedic. All that is needed to operate a satellite clinic is a building with the proper equipment and a part-time EMT, a job that requires a course 120-150 hours in length.
And now the focus is on Cooper Landing.
“Cooper Landing has tried to have a clinician out there, even part time,” said Kerry Dorius, a family nurse practitioner at the Girdwood Health Clinic. “But with telemedicine, just maintaining an EMT and a building, it’s very affordable. It’s a great safety net.”
The Hope Clinic is a quaint, highly functional use of 600 square feet. As a log cabin donated by Alaska Dacha, the clinic was formerly used as a guest cabin. It has now been completely remodeled, and it offers state-of-the-art equipment. Patients are greeted at a small reception desk with the walls decorated in colorful and cheerful artwork.
The sterile-yet-cozy treatment area is compact and comfortable, with a patient table, a folding dressing wall and medical equipment along the perimeter. The small facility is stocked with basic medical supplies, such as antibiotics, immunizations, non-habit forming narcotics, and telemedicine equipment.
In addition to first responder care, the Hope Clinic is also able to do blood work, physical examinations and remote diagnosing. Using telemedicine, this information can be relayed to a patient’s physician. The Hope Clinic is structured to save locals commuting time without replacing their current health care provider.
“We’re not asking people to change their physician,” said Katrina Bishop, EMT II at the Hope Clinic. “We’re asking people to allow us to work with their physician to make it easier.”
In order to replicate the Hope Clinic in Cooper Landing and other rural areas, state and federal funding is needed. Continuing Health Care funding, which is acquired through the state of Alaska, would allow for ongoing costs to be covered. Obtaining CHC funding would then qualify a new clinic for federal startup money. According to Bishop, “The Hope Clinic operates on a shoestring budget of approximately $2,500 per month.”
The process of establishing a new clinic in Cooper Landing would begin with grant writing from the Girdwood Health Clinic to receive the funds. And the project would only be possible through community effort in Cooper Landing.
“Adding Hope and then adding Cooper Landing in a cost-effective way by using telemedicine allows for these clinics to open and remain open,” Dorius said. “Banding all of these little communities together makes it sustainable.”
Introducing more satellite clinics along Turnagain Arm and other rural communities nearby like Cooper Landing makes the hub clinic in Girdwood more viable.
“The [new] clinic feeds into the Girdwood clinic, making it more sustainable,” Dorius said. “We send a clinician to the Hope Clinic at least once each month, more if there’s enough business. We will do the same in Cooper Landing.”
Murkowski described her visit to Hope as a “field trip,” and it serves as a strong reminder of the great need for local medical care in rural areas.
As new families continue to move to Hope, available health care becomes a growing need. This year alone, seven new students were added to the Hope School, bringing the number of students to 23
“If you didn’t have the clinic, having to run all the way into Anchorage or even out to Girdwood isn’t always possible for a family,” Murkowski said. And in a life-threatening situation, immediate care would be necessary. “This is the big takeaway here. It’s that we’re able to provide for a level of care in smaller communities that have been too far away to have any kind of economies of scale. We’re able to do it because of what we have with technology. It allows for a delivery of options that we’ve never had before and an affordability that makes it all possible.”