A fourth year of funding for ECU’s Geriatric Workforce Enhancement Program (GWEP) will mean new ways for seniors in eastern North Carolina to access health care.
GWEP, initially funded by a three-year, $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, was approved for a fourth year and an additional $880,387.
Now entering its third year of providing community-based education through health screenings of farmers, loggers and fishermen, GWEP also provides important interprofessional education to nurse practitioners, physician assistants and medical students as they work together in treating patients.
So far, the program, which takes a community-based approach to senior health care in eastern North Carolina, has screened 1,500 community residents for fall risk, depression and cognitive impairment and provided education to more than 3,000 family dementia caregivers. As part of the program, ECU partners with Roanoke Chowan Community Health Center, Goshen Medical Center, Cypress Glen Retirement Community, the Regional Area Agencies on Aging, the North Carolina Agromedicine Institute and the Dementia Alliance of North Carolina to provide unprecedented access to senior health care in the region.
For their fourth year, program director Dr. Donna Roberson said the GWEP team has several additions planned, which include a new focus on improving access to treatment for opioid abuse, expanding services aimed at mental health and increasing access to health care in rural areas.
Maggie Blakemore, right, a student in ECU’s Doctor of Nursing Practice program, works with a patient in Varnamtown during a GWEP screening event. (Photo by Matt Smith)
Opioid and substance abuse subgrant
GWEP has tapped Dr. Candace Harrington, an adult gerontology primary care nurse practitioner and clinical professor in the College of Nursing, to lead a subgrant geared toward treatment of opioid and substance abuse. Roberson said they plan to train nurse practitioners and physician assistants to receive the Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) certification required of providers to prescribe certain medications, such as Suboxone and buprenorphine, which are used in treating opioid addiction.
Concern over the opioid epidemic in the U.S. continues to grow. A report released by the Centers for Disease Control in August estimates a record 72,000 overdose deaths in the nation in 2017. Older adults are not exempt from the dangers that taking opioids can present.
Part of the problem, Roberson said, stems from providers in the past prescribing opioids erroneously before it became widely understood how addictive and harmful they can be when used irresponsibly. As a result, many older people have become dependent on the medications to treat aches and pains that might be better treated with other medications.
“There would be less risk of falls, there would be less risk of respiratory depression if they would get off the opioids and be on something more appropriate to manage their type of pain complaint,” Roberson said. “It’s the opportunity to teach them that part of life is pain, and you’re not going to be completely pain free. Some years ago, we were telling people that they can be pain free — that’s not realistic.”
Geriatric psychiatry expert joins GWEP
Brody School of Medicine’s Dr. Stan Oakley, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine, will join the program, providing mental health training to health care providers and community members, not only to help those dealing with mental health issues and diseases such as Alzheimer’s, but for their caregivers as well.
An increased focus on caregivers will be an important part of GWEP moving forward into the fourth year and beyond, if there’s an opportunity to apply for another grant cycle, Roberson said.
“We do a lot of half-day caregiver conferences and I’ve been asked to speak,” Roberson said. “The last one we did was in Greenville and I got two emails immediately from people: ‘Thank you so much. Nobody has said these things. I had no idea that what I was feeling was normal.’”
Mobile medical van to increase access to care in rural areas
The grant will also support the new Goshen Medical Center mobile medical van, a collaboration that will transport health care providers and medical equipment to provide care to remote areas of eastern North Carolina. The van was unveiled at one of GWEP’s recent screening events in Varnamtown, a small fishing community.
Although the GWEP team is exploring new ways to improve the health and well-being of seniors and their caregivers in the region, Roberson said it won’t be straying from the initial mission of teaching health care providers to work together in providing high-quality geriatric care.
“If we’re fortunate,” she said, “we’re all going live to be old enough that we’re going to need someone to take care of us.”
A map shows locations where the ECU Geriatric Workforce Enhancement Project (GWEP) has performed screenings, training seminars and held community outreach events in eastern North Carolina since the project began in 2015.(Photo by Conley Evans)