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AZ Healthcare Center Stands Up to Rural Challenges

After working 23 years in the healthcare field, Margaret Morales still hasn’t tired of the constant business her daily job entails. Born and raised in Douglas, Ariz., Morales is the clinic manager for the town’s only Rural Healthcare Center, one of eight government-funded programs throughout the state.

“I got involved in the medical field because I wanted something different and to learn. The job is never ending and there is always a need for medical services.”

With a population of around 17,000 people, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, the quiet town of Douglas knows this need for healthcare services all too well. The area is one of the many rural communities throughout Arizona considered medically underserved, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.

The problem for rural America is a large land area with a low population and trying to bring physicians to areas with few healthcare dollars, said Jim Dickson, CEO of the Copper Queen Community Hospital.

Founded seven years ago, the Copper Queen Community Hospital’s program is host to the Douglas location as well as two other healthcare clinics in Cochise County. According to Dickson, it is one of the three largest rural healthcare centers in Arizona that spans the southern part of the state with more than 150,000 people.

To alleviate the strain on rural healthcare, Dickson describes the centers as  “hospitals without walls,” complete with radiology, laboratory and physical therapy services. This federal clinic system is also coupled with the Copper Queen Medical Associates, a group of 13 doctors that independently sets and evaluates standards for each of their practices.

Through this blending, Copper Queen in the past three years has been successful in recruiting medical professionals to these underserved areas. However, obtaining doctors for rural Arizona has been a large challenge in the past and still today.

“What we were seeing is that doctor’s were leaving. They were closing down clinics and leaving town,” said Dickson.

This is exactly what Morales saw as clinic manager for Arizona Family Healthcare after working there for nine years. When five providers dwindled down to two, the clinic had to close its doors.

The Copper Queen Rural Healthcare Center located in Douglas, Ariz. Photo by Katie Parchen

Morales is seeing this same challenge at her clinic today. “We have trouble because we don’t have enough providers,” she said. “When you’ve got 1,200 to 1,600 [people] a month that we’re seeing and more that want to come in, sometimes we can’t take new patients because we just don’t have any room for them.”

The same goes for medical staff in each of the locations. In a team effort, Morales and the other clinic managers located in Bisbee and Palominas lend medical assistants to each other where needed.

Luckily, the Douglas clinic will be adding two more providers to their five full-time physicians and constructing additional eight exam rooms within the next month.

Morales is excited about these upcoming changes to better the availability of healthcare the people of Douglas. With such a small population, the town considers itself a large family and the center’s 23-person staff has deep roots within the community.

“It’s like a home-feel, you get to know and interact with patients everyday and you get really attached to them because it’s such a small town,” said Angelica Luzania, a clerical staff member of three years.

Like Luzania, the majority of these members are Hispanic and native to the Douglas community. Being bilingual is something Morales looks for when hiring new staff as most residents only speak Spanish.

With the help of her son as a translator, Carla Lopadi said she loves the Douglas community and trusts the healthcare center. “I like the environment, it’s really nice here. [The center] attends fast and has great service,” she said.

Furthering the already close family dynamic, Morales runs the clinic under a ‘sliding fee scale’ where the charge for patients is based upon income and number of persons in the household. With 34 percent of persons below the poverty level, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, some cannot afford the minimum $10 fee to be seen. In this case, the fee is written off as charity so that no person is left without the clinic’s services.

Dickson hopes to continue to be able to bring healthcare to the rural residents of Cochise County.

“We need not to have these systems cut back because without them, through federal budget cuts, that would mean we have no doctors again.”

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