A newborn might be in one room, a great grandmother in the next and an injured farmer in still another room.
For Dr. Sallie Coke, this would just be any other day at the small-town clinic where she works in rural Lamar County, which is home to 18,000 people in middle Georgia.
“It’s wonderful. You can go to the grocery store and everybody knows you,” Coke said. “One time, my car broke down and like three patients stopped.”
That may not appeal to everyone, but for nurses who enjoy rural living, Coke wants to help boost their educational credentials so they can do more in rural communities desperate for primary care services.
So, when Coke isn’t tending to the medical needs of Lamar County residents, who have no hospital or ambulance service, she is teaching nursing students at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville.
The university was recently awarded a $2.7 million grant that will cover the costs for nursing students who are willing to work for two years in a rural county. That isn’t a tough sell for students who come from small counties and would like to return home to work.
The grant will also pay for county public health nurses to go back to school so they can return to their clinics with a higher degree, which in Georgia empowers them to provide some additional services.
Every county in Georgia has a health department, and in some places, it’s the only health care provider.
The state Department of Public Health will, in turn, train the university’s students on how to use telehealth, which uses technology to connect patients to health care providers who could be hundreds of miles away.
Thirteen public health nurses have already signed, coming from rural areas like Dodge, Macon and Peach counties. The goal is for 40 of them to become nurse practitioners in the next four years, focusing on either family care or women’s health.
The grants builds on the work of an earlier $1.5 million award that paid for the education of 52 nurse practitioners, including 11 public health nurses.
Resolving Georgia’s rural health care shortages has been a nagging problem for state leaders. More than 80 percent of the state’s counties have significant numbers of people who lack a steady source of primary care. Nine counties have no doctor at all; about a dozen have only one.
There are limits, though, on the services a nurse practitioner, who works under the supervision of a doctor, can provide in Georgia. So for some services, patients will likely still need to travel for care. As an example, Coke said a nurse practitioner can give a woman a gynecological exam but cannot order a screening mammogram for her.
Nurse practitioners are given varying levels of practice authority across the country, with about half the country allowing what is known as full-practice authority. Georgia is among the most restrictive states.
“What we can do can make just a huge impact on the state,” Coke said.