The visionaries who started Piedmont Health dreamed of improving people’s lives by ensuring access to a wide variety of health services. But the organization had humble beginnings.
Piedmont Health was incorporated on March 11, 1970, under the name Orange-Chatham Comprehensive Health Services, Inc. (OCCHS). The organization’s first community health center – and the state’s first federally qualified community health center – was established in Prospect Hill, a rural community in Caswell County that had not had a physician since 1959. The Prospect Hill Community Health Center initially was housed in a small building (Warren Memorial Clinic space), with the addition of trailers soon after.
Three key groups came together to create the business model for the early Piedmont Health centers: the community of Prospect Hill; Dr. Glenn Pickard, who was working with N.C. Memorial Hospital (now known as UNC Hospitals) as an internist and part of a team responding to the growing problem of medical school graduates unwilling to set up a practice in rural communities; and Paul Alston and the Joint Orange-Chatham Community Action Agency, which provided the funding.
The center began treating patients in 1971. NC Memorial Hospital provided physicians who trained family nurse practitioners. OCCHS was the first in the state to use nurses as specially trained nurse practitioners as an innovative approach for expanding and supplementing the type of care previously limited to primary care physicians. They were all part of a team that included physicians, medical assistants and community workers. Before the year was out, OCCHS also opened community health centers in Moncure and Carrboro.
Moses Carey, Jr. became executive director of OCCHS in 1980. In his 18 years with the organization, Carey played a key role in the organization’s growth, overseeing the opening of five centers including the construction of a new Prospect Hill facility. In May 1995, reflecting the expansion of the organization’s service area, OCCHS changed its name to Piedmont Health Services, Inc.
In 1974, the Piedmont Heath dental department hired its first full-time director, Dr. Charles Campbell. The services have greatly expanded and, today, Piedmont’s dental health programs serve thousands of patients of every age with a full range of services.
Piedmont Health continues to grow under the leadership of Brian Toomey, who became CEO in 2005. Today, Piedmont has grown to ten community health centers. Each center offers a unique set of programs, such as dental services, diabetes education, nutrition and social work counseling, and administration of the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program.
In addition, in 2008, Piedmont Health SeniorCare facility opened in Burlington. The facility — an innovative Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE) — gives seniors and their families an alternative to nursing home care by providing them with comprehensive health-care services from a multidisciplinary team of professionals at their homes and in SeniorCare facilities. In 2013, Piedmont Health opened a second SeniorCare facility in Pittsboro, N.C.
For people unaccustomed to primary care close by, the community health centers have proven to be a critical resource for many thousands of people, many of them without the means or ability to get the help from more distant or inaccessible providers. The health centers provide high-quality health care to anyone, regardless of ability to pay, and a large portion of Piedmont’s patients are uninsured or low-income. And, as the population of North Carolina and the Piedmont region has grown more diverse, particularly with increasing numbers of Latinos, the organization has responded by adding translators and bilingual care givers. A new challenge has been an influx of patients who are refugees from Burma and speak several different languages. That challenge was also met with the help of skilled interpreters.
The idea of making good, comprehensive health care an integral part of the local community may have been considered something of an experiment in 1970. Forty five years later, the experiment continues to show unquestioned success.