Allying for Health Equity Blog

Albany, Georgia, a city of roughly 70,000, sits on the banks of the Flint River in the southern portion of Georgia’s Southern Rivers Region. The eighth-largest city in the state, it is home to Albany Area Primary Health Care (AAPHC), a longtime member of the Association of Clinicians for the Underserved (ACU). Forty-three years ago, AAPHC’s Clinical Services Director and ACU Board Member Dr. Jim Hotz helped found what is now the area’s largest community health center. AAPHC currently provides primary and specialty care services to over 45,000 medically under-resourced patients in nine counties and 21 sites.

A Culture of Compassionate Care and Collaboration

Building a healthy community by addressing health inequities and making quality healthcare available for all is central to AAPHC’s values. Employees at every level share in this mission-driven philosophy and health center culture. CEO Shelley Spires, Vice President of ACU’s Board of Directors, commented, “Our staff are just as engaged as the leadership team, and I think that says a lot about the organization.”

The demand for mental health care is high in Southwest Georgia, historically outweighing the region’s resources. AAPHC has committed to supporting healthier communities by filling this gap in behavioral health services. AAPHC provides the only in-person child and adolescent psychiatry services in the area and is the only organization to have face-to-face adult psychiatry services in South Georgia—a vital resource in a state that ranked last in access to mental health care in Mental Health America’s report, 2021: The State of Mental Health in America.

Spires emphasized how essential local partner collaborations are in addressing health inequity in this Georgia community. AAPHC maintains an effective and reciprocal relationship with the Department of Public Health by collaborating on preventative care initiatives. AAPHC contributed to the Department’s “Georgia Breast and Cervical Cancer Program (BCCP)” by helping develop a program for uninsured patients to receive screenings and comprehensive cancer care. Additionally, the Department was among the first organizations to receive COVID-19 vaccines in the region, but lacked the clinical staff to meet community demand. AAPHC stepped in to help provide vaccinations. “It was truly a partnership in making that happen,” Spires said.

Accessible Care: Going Above and Beyond

Access to care is an additional barrier to health equity, particularly in rural regions, and AAPHC is meeting this challenge by bringing healthcare directly to patients. AAPHC’s two Mobile Access Care Units go to churches and other nonprofits to administer vaccines, immunizations, and screenings, check vital signs, and provide dental services. These “clinics on wheels” provide easy and convenient access to healthcare services that might otherwise be neglected.

While AAPHC’s mobile clinic makes access to quality healthcare easier, another strategy to bring care directly to patients is through school-based health centers. AAPHC cares for many of its youngest community members in nine of these centers throughout the area. These partnerships with local schools break down the barrier of access and allow students, teachers, and staff the opportunity to receive care where they learn and work. Students’ eyesight is also a key priority. With assistance from ACU’s vision services program grants, AAPHC launched a school-based vision care program in February 2020.

Maintaining a Strong Workforce While Looking Ahead

As many healthcare organizations struggle with workforce shortages, Albany has made progress in bolstering its workforce by leveraging programs such as the National Health Service Corps (NHSC) to help attract providers. Spires is an NHSC Ambassador and credited this critical program with helping AAPHC recruit and retain providers at its sites. “Without that program’s incentive for providers to come to Albany, GA, our success would not be where it is.”

Spires reflected on her 21 years at AAPHC and its growth—the health center had eight sites and 100 employees when Spires came on board in 2021—and looks forward to seeing the health center continue to expand to meet the growing needs of Southwest Georgia’s underserved communities. “It’s been quite a journey, and I’m very excited about what the future holds.”