UNCP positions self to address local health-care needs

The news from The University of North Carolina at Pembroke will cure, quite literally, much of what ails Southeastern North Carolina.

Eventually.

As expected, UNCP announced on Friday it was establishing a College of Health Sciences, which will educate providers that will in time help fill some of the health-care gaps in this part of the state, such as nurse practitioner, optometry, occupational therapy, physical therapy, public health, nutrition, dietetics and health administration.

This was probably always where UNCP was headed once Dr. Robin Cummings was named chancellor. The Dr. before Cummings’ name, unlike most chancellors, doesn’t indicate a doctorate, but instead is a medical degree, from no less than Duke University, which trained him to perform open heart surgery. He then spent time overseeing the state’s Medicaid program.

So a few months ago, when the idea for a College of Health Sciences was first floated for the public, Cummings wasn’t being boastful when he said, “We know a thing or two about health care because we’ve done a thing or two in health care.”

Cummings used “we” while referring also to David Ward, UNCP’s provost who served as dean of a College of Health Sciences at two previous institutions, and Jim Jones, a former UNCP board chairman, a medical doctor, the founding chairman of the Family Medicine program at East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine and past president of the National Academy of Family Physicians.

It has been well-established that health professionals often go to work near where they attain their education, and we believe there are cultural reasons why that is even more likely to happen in Robeson County.

We have the local talent, which has been demonstrated by the nursing programs at Robeson Community College and UNCP, and we have Southeastern Health and a regional medical center that face obstacles, sometimes insurmountable, in recruiting health providers to the county.

We have an urgent need because Robeson County is unhealthy, with high rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and infant mortality, and our people are too fat and sedentary. The life expectancy of a Robeson County resident therefore is several years less than that of other North Carolinians and Americans.

“The College of Health Sciences is part of our mission to build upon the foundation in place at UNC Pembroke, and to serve as an engine, a driver to strengthen our communities and meet Southeastern North Carolina’s economic and health care needs,” Cummings said. “With the experienced leadership in place, and the unwavering support of our regional partners, our new college will begin immediately to produce highly-skilled health professionals for a region where they are greatly needed.”

The College of Health Sciences initially will consist of four pre-existing departments — counseling, health and human performance, nursing and social work — with about 100 faculty and 1,400 students. It will become UNCP’s sixth college and first addition since 1999, and combined with the tuition bargain that NC Promise offers, will help the university continue to grow.

The plan is to add additional bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral programs, in addition to a two-year degree completion program for people who wish to transition to leadership positions in the health field.

Cummings said in April, “It would be a game-changer.”

We can now drop the conditional “would,” and say now that it will be a game-changer.