News & Analysis

How a Church-Based Clinic Is Making Primary Care More Accessible

Portrait of Dawn Carter

Dawn Carter

Wooden pews with red cushions illustrate the idea that churches can help to make primary care more accessible

The top line: Accessible primary care is critical to population health – but problematic for healthcare facility planning. In one NC county, a healthcare system is partnering with a local church to improve accessibility with minimal investment in bricks and mortar.

Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Cleveland County is one of the prettier spots in North Carolina, but not one of the more affluent. The county’s 98,000 residents have an average per capita income of $19,284, which ranks Cleveland in the bottom third of NC counties and well below the national average of $27,334.

There’s a 241-bed hospital in Shelby, the county seat, where the ER often serves as primary care for uninsured residents, as is so often the case in poorer, less populated areas of the country.

As advisors in healthcare strategy and facility planning this is a dilemma we see often: Residents need convenient, accessible primary care, but building and staffing new clinics is prohibitively expensive. As we’ve written previously, “borrowing” existing community facilities can be an effective solution, and an innovative new partnership in Cleveland County offers a glimpse of that model at work.

Atrium Health, the operator of the local hospital, has opened the county’s first freestanding community clinic in a building owned by Mt. Calvary Baptist Church. The clinic is outfitted with equipment like heartbeat monitors and blood pressure cuffs, and Atrium staff are on hand to connect patients to virtual visits while performing routine health checks.

As Lamont Littlejohn, the church’s pastor, told the local paper: “The majority of things that you would go to see a doctor for can be addressed here. Things like fever, colds, allergies, you can get a COVID test done here. Any of those common things that people might need to see a doctor for but may not have the means to get to a doctor.”

It’s too early to know how the clinic will perform financially, but minimizing the up-front investment in real estate will certainly help. And although this is the first time Atrium has partnered with a church to open a freestanding health clinic in Cleveland County, the Charlotte-based system has worked with the public health department and the public school system to offer in-school clinics since 2017.

Churches and schools are just two of the ways that healthcare providers can “borrow” community facilities to offer more accessible primary care that is more economically viable at the same time.