The West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine’s graduates and programs are making a difference in small communities throughout the state.

For a small osteopathic medical school nestled in the southern West Virginia mountains, the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine (WVSOM) is making a big impact on healthcare.

As of October 2018, there were a total of 796 WVSOM graduates practicing in West Virginia, some of whom were members of the school’s inaugural graduating class in 1978.

“WVSOM was founded to improve access to health care in small, rural communities throughout the state,” says President James W. Nemitz. “We’ve seen a constant increase in the number of physicians practicing in West Virginia. Our grads are in 48 out of 55 counties in the state, and that represents both primary care and non-primary care specialties.”

Committed to Local Care
The large number of WVSOM graduates practicing in West Virginia may be attributed to the school’s Statewide Campus program, the goal of which is to encourage students to remain in the Mountain State to practice. In their third and fourth years, students are assigned to one of 22 hospitals across West Virginia that will serve as base sites for their medical education, and they receive additional training at 36 more hospitals in the state.

Dr. Christopher Donovan “Dino” Beckett is one example of a WVSOM graduate practicing in West Virginia. After graduating in 2000, Beckett completed his residency at Charleston Area Medical Center, after which he returned to Williamson, a small, coal-mining town in Mingo County with a population of less than 3,000 residents.

Beckett opened a family practice there and began offering a free clinic once a month to cater to patients who had little or no insurance. This led to the transition of his practice to a nonprofit federally-qualified health center called the Williamson Health and Wellness Center, which is now the parent organization of the Mingo County Diabetes Coalition and the Williamson Farmer’s Market. Patients are prescribed vegetables, encouraged to eat healthy, and have follow up care with diabetes educators and community health workers in the same location to improve health outcomes.

He has taken the principles of osteopathic medicine—treating patients’ minds, bodies, and spirits in a holistic approach—and applied it to community development. “We practice holistic community development. It’s understanding mind, body, and spirit, looking at all those facets of the community and how they are all interconnected, so we can create change and opportunities for people,” he says.

Beckett has received many awards for his work, including the National Rural Health Association’s Rural Health Practitioner of the Year in 2017 and the WVSOM Alumni of the Year in 2018. But he’s just one of many alumni who attend WVSOM, decide to practice in West Virginia after they graduate, and serve the needs of their community and state.

A Broader View of Medical Education
Beyond WVSOM’s campus, the medical school also strives to serve the needs of West Virginians by assisting and working with community-based organizations. To support these community efforts, WVSOM created the Center for Rural and Community Health (CRCH) to improve the health and well-being of West Virginians and positively change the state’s health profile through research, education, and outreach opportunities.

Drema Mace, executive director of the CRCH, says having strong community partnerships ties into WVSOM’s mission of serving the health care needs of its residents. “Having successful community partnerships is important because there is more strength in numbers and by collaborating we can build an infrastructure that benefits the overall health of our communities,” she says.

The center has garnered community participatory research for students and faculty; sponsors the Greenbrier County Health Alliance, and works closely with the alliance to provide community-engaged opportunities for healthy nutrition and physical activity; and offers trainings statewide for community health worker training program. WVSOM has adopted evidence-based programs created by Stanford University to educate people about chronic disease self-management, chronic pain self-management, and diabetes. The school also works with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a federal funding agency for substance abuse.

Another effort by the CRCH was the creation of the “Prescription Opioid and Heroin Awareness Toolkit: A Prevention Guide,” designed to bring awareness to the rising epidemic in the state and offer resources for those trying to recover. The toolkit was developed in collaboration with the Greenbrier County Community Addressing Prescription Drug Epidemic (CARxE) Coalition.

The toolkit was presented in October 2017 at the West Virginia Rural Health Conference and, as a result, neighboring counties began expressing an interest in it. During that time, SAMHSA began using it as a model for other areas of the state — hoping to replicate the toolkit statewide.

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To date, printed and electronic versions of the prevention and awareness toolkits are available in Greenbrier, Boone, and Mercer counties. Electronic versions are available for Cabell and Kanawha counties, with printed copies available soon. Toolkits in Fayette and Wyoming counties are currently in development and 10 additional counties are planned for this year.

In 2017, West Virginia led the nation in age-adjusted drug overdose death rates with a rate of 57.8 per 100,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CRCH and CARxE Coalition hope the toolkit will prove to be one example of how to address this crisis while also addressing the negative stigma associated with opioid use.

The toolkit has also gained national exposure. Mace and Haylee Heinsberg, CRCH education director, presented “An Opioid Toolkit: A Rural Community Education Project” at the National Rural Health Association’s annual conference in May 2018 in New Orleans, Louisiana. “We are one of the major players in addressing this crisis in regards to education, prevention, and the possibility of what we can do with treatment and workforce development. WVSOM’s CRCH is doing great work in that area,” President Nemitz says.

Not Just a Mission, a Purpose
The final sentence of WVSOM’s mission statement is one of the most important: “WVSOM is dedicated to serve, first and foremost, the state of West Virginia and the health care needs of its residents, emphasizing primary care in rural areas.”

This is more than just words—it’s the philosophy that guides WVSOM’s day-to-day operations and plans for the future. Whether training doctors who will serve the state where they received their medical education, or creating programs like the CRCH that are working to make communities throughout the state better, the small medical school that is WVSOM is making a big impact throughout West Virginia.