A vision to transform rural health care

Member of med school’s inaugural class has found a home in Elkin, where Campbell has partnered for RuralTrack residency program

Dr. Patrick Stevens slides into a booth, tucked away in a corner of a popular restaurant in downtown Elkin, North Carolina.

He’s there for a meeting, but his smile is warm, welcoming. As though he was greeting an old friend or colleague, and not someone he just met.

Stevens, a family physician, seemed genuinely happy to be there. To talk about his family, the local area and his career with Hugh-Chatham Health. To talk about Campbell University, and the Jerry M. Wallace School of Osteopathic Medicine. He graduated from the medical school in 2017, a member of its inaugural class.  

Stevens is a family physician in nearby Jonesville and part of the Hugh-Chatham healthcare network. It’s all part of the Campbell family, in a special sort of way. Aubrey, his wife, will enter her third year at Campbell medical school this summer. She also plans to work in family medicine. Both are from the South Bend, Indiana, area and graduated from Indiana University. They moved to the Elkin area in 2022 with their three children, Conner, who is 19; Molly, 16; and Mad, 14.

Patrick Stevens is chief of family medicine for Hugh-Chatham, a network that includes an 81-bed nonprofit community hospital about two hours from Buies Creek. In a brand-new role, Stevens also is associate program director for a unique residency program in North Carolina.

Hugh-Chatham Health and Campbell’s medical school have partnered for a designated Rural Track residency program, in coordination with the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education. Campbell has multiple residency programs, but this is Campbell’s first foray onto the RuralTrack, during which, according to the ACGME, all or some of the participating residents gain urban and rural experience. The goal of the residency aligns with the mission of the medical school; serving rural communities in North Carolina with the goal of keeping physicians in those communities.

Campbell was initially attractive to the Stevenses for myriad reasons, its strong support system, osteopathic focus and commitment to rural healthcare chief among them.

“I found Campbell because, obviously, I was applying to med schools, and Campbell has that rural focus,” Patrick said. “I applied and interviewed at several different places, but Campbell was unique in that regard.”

Campbell, he said, sold a vision. Focusing on rural health care, transforming it.

“They could have put (the medical school) in Raleigh. They could have put it anywhere,” he said. “But they wanted to emphasize rural health care.”

Aubrey’s route to Campbell was a bit more circuitous.

The Stevens family

Her background is in outreach and public health. As an undergrad she majored in anthropology and Spanish — she went on to earn a master’s degree in Spanish — and taught the language as an adjunct faculty instructor at Indiana University South Bend. Her interest in pursuing a career in health care, as a family physician, started to pique after Patrick returned to Indiana for his residency.  

“As a family doctor, you’re managing the care of all your patients, but you’re also that point of contact for them to serve as an advocate for their health and well-being — getting to know the patient, talking about their healthcare and promoting healthy habits.” Aubrey got her prerequisites and began looking at medical schools.

“Of course, Campbell was at the top of my list because we had such a wonderful experience here,” she said. “Patrick was very well supported, and our family felt very well supported. Even as a family with three kids under the age of eight, I never felt isolated by the school. I always felt very comfortable here.” 

Aubrey remembers, during Patrick’s Campbell orientation, a session about osteopathic medicine led Dr. William F. Morris. Morris, founding chair of the Department of Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine at the medical school, died in 2015.

“He was phenomenal,” Aubrey said. “He did a presentation to the families … and it just blew me away. I didn’t know much about (osteopathic medicine). I felt very educated after listening.”

A holistic approach. Body, mind, spirit. Structure and function.

“I knew I wanted to do primary care,” Patrick said, pointing to “the osteopathic philosophy of holistic healthcare, as well as the extra training we got in musculoskeletal medicine. The thought process of how structure and function are interrelated was a huge selling point for me.

“I didn’t know much about it initially, but the more and more I looked into it, the more and more I said, ‘This makes perfect sense for me,’ and that’s why we chose to go that route.”

Aubrey is doing some clinical rotations in Salisbury, but she’ll do the majority of her rotations in her third and fourth years back home at Hugh-Chatham. Back home with her family, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

“Elkin is such a wonderful town,” she said.

Patrick interviewed at more than a dozen health care facilities and networks across the state before choosing Elkin, his last stop.

“We knew we didn’t want to move again,” said Patrick, estimating some seven moves in 10 years. “There are a lot of unknowns throughout the process of completing medical school,” he said. “So, we said, ‘Hey, if we can settle in an area where we know we are going to want to retire. …

“I told (Aubrey), right away after I got out of the car, that after meeting with people, after having my interview, this is a little bit different … and a lot of that just lies with the people — their willingness to work with you, their willingness to hear your concerns … that’s been kind of a really wonderful thing. This is really a perfect spot for us.”

The Rural Track partnership will be relatively small, at least to start, with four residents entering each year. Eventually, the three-year program will have 12 residents, who have trained in a rural program and, optimistically, will want to practice in a similar environment, whether with Hugh-Chatham or nearby in northwest North Carolina.   

Interviews for admission to the Rural Track will start in the fall, with the first residency class at Hugh-Chatham beginning in summer 2025.