HIGH COUNTRY — In the High Country, access to medical specialists has been on the rise. Appalachian Regional Healthcare System has recently added or enhanced services such as cardiology, orthopedics, obstetrics and gynecology, and much more. It’s a promising development. But as a result, the true role of the family medicine — or primary care — provider may not be fully understood in today’s highly-specialized and compartmentalized view of healthcare.

AppFamily Medicine aims to educate the community about its approach to treating the whole person and the whole family throughout every stage of life. And they are taking steps to create a true family practice from birth through childhood and throughout adult life.

They established the practice and added full-service pediatric care and a same-day/walk-in clinic. The next phase of their approach is to create a prenatal clinic and deliver babies at Watauga Medical Center, according to ARHS.

A big step for women’s healthcare

In 2008, Harmony Center for Women opened its doors to create a central location for women’s health — including gynecology, obstetrics and midwifery — to give women several options for how they wanted to receive care, and to cover all levels of care from routine to high-risk. Dr. Beverly Womack joined Harmony shortly after it opened and has provided women’s health care, prenatal care, childbirth and well as gynecological surgery throughout her career of more than 20 years.

Shortly after Harmony was established, Watauga County’s population grew significantly. Today, 25 percent more people live in the county than they did in 2008. ARHS stated it believes access to health care, particularly for women, must keep up with the High Country’s growth.

“We have a lot of patients in our region who have never had appropriate access to care,” said Dr. Womack, “and it is my passion to improve that.”

Meeting the growing community’s needEnter the Mountain Area Health Education Center and the Boone Rural Family Medicine Residency Program, which began at AppFamily Medicine and Watauga Medical Center in 2020. Family medicine residents are accredited doctors who have recently graduated from medical school. They receive three years of further training in six major medical areas — pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology (OB/GYN), internal medicine, psychiatry and neurology, surgery, and community medicine. Those young physicians will be the future of family medicine in the High Country and other rural areas.

To accomplish OB/GYN training for these young doctors, AppFamily Medicine welcomes Dr. Womack as supervisor for obstetric and gynecologic education for the residency program.

She is teaching and supervising the family medicine resident physicians caring for women and children in the High Country. While she will no longer deliver babies with her own patients, she will assist the resident doctors in obstetrics and childbirth.

Dr. Womack said that she treasures the “privilege to be with women in their most vulnerable and intimate and important parts of their lives.” Now, she can share that same passion and privilege with doctors in the first phase of their careers.

She sees patients 60 percent of the time for gynecology appointments, including well-woman care, emerging or chronic problems, and surgery. With the remaining 40 percent of her time, she will establish a prenatal clinic with the resident doctors.

“I have had such a good experience with the residents,” said Dr. Womack. “My time with them has really rejuvenated my enthusiasm for what I do. It made me reflect back on everything I’ve done so far. And it really made me start thinking about things I wish I had known when I was a younger doctor.”

In the AppFamily Medicine prenatal clinic, residents under the guidance of Dr. Womack will be seeing women with low-risk pregnancies and managing labor and delivery at Watauga Medical Center.

Dr. Womack believes having the residents assist her with patient care is going to “make it better for all of us.”

Full-circle healthcare for families

One key advantage of family medicine is that mothers can choose the same physician who delivered their baby for ongoing pediatric care. Dr. Charlie Baker, who practiced in Avery County for more than 40 years is a prime example of a full-circle family physician. He cared for pregnant women, delivered babies, cared for them throughout their childhood into adulthood — sometimes going full circle to deliver babies for women whom he had helped enter the world.

Looking into the future, Dr. Womack said she hopes to expand the times and locations where they can see patients to lower the burden on women and the barriers to receiving care.

How to get care

If a community member is pregnant or plan to become pregnant and do not have a provider, they can call AppFamily Medicine at (828) 386-2222 or request an appointment online at apprhs.org/appointment. They should let the scheduler know that they are interested in gynecology and/or prenatal care.

AppFamily also has general health care, gynecology and family planning services available for every stage of womanhood, whether a community member plans to start a family or not. Call today or request an appointment online to get established with a provider who can help navigate healthcare decisions.

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