Nearly six hours from Charlottesville and nestled among the Appalachian Mountains that border Big Stone Gap, Va. – once dubbed “Mineral City,” and less than five miles from the Kentucky border – lies an ugly paradox: While cancer rates here are slightly lower than the state average, deaths from cancer are 24 percent higher than the state average.
So what’s at play?
“Cancer mortality in this part of the country is absolutely driven by access,” UVA nursing professor and CNL coordinator Emma Mitchell explains. “Given the shortage of clinicians who live and work in Southwest Virginia, people there experience serious health issues precisely because they lack good, foundational primary care to catch disease before it progresses too far. That’s what we’re up against. That’s what we’re here to try to understand.”
It was precisely why Mitchell and ten of her Clinical Nurse Leader master’s students hit the road last summer to present topics about cancer prevention to community members, part of a new partnership with Mountain Empire Older Citizens, Inc., the area’s senior and community center. There they trained lay health navigators about cancer screenings, and hosted a cancer screening and health fair for more than two dozen mostly elderly residents.
UVA’s CNL program – recently ranked No. 2 in the nation by US News & World Report’s 2017 Best Graduate School guide – offers a two-year track for non-nurses with at least a bachelor’s degree to enter the profession on a fast track. Its small classes, small group and one-to-one mentorship, nearly 1,000 clinical hours and ample opportunities to study abroad and conduct research set the program apart.
For Mitchell, who studies disparities in health care, it’s a rich opportunity to engage students in an issue in their own back yards, even if it’s a considerable drive away in rural Virginia. For the students, the week-long visit to southwest Virginia was part of their community health rotation – and an up-close view of preventative care, one-to-one.
“When we’re in the hospital setting teaching someone, they already have the condition we’re teaching them about,” said Corey Caldwell (CNL `16), “but what we’re teaching lay navigators is on the prevention side. This is our chance to get to them before it happens, which is the definition of preventative care.”