No-cost medical care offered in Dover through Monday
A military training program is in Dover through the weekend, providing no cost healthcare to Central Delaware.
Normally members of the nation’s military branches practice their skills in a controlled environment, away from the general public.
But one unique program, called Innovative Readiness Training, or IRT, brings them into communities to provide both training for the soldiers and help those communities across a wide range of needs.
The missions range from building new shelters for summer camps, repairing roads or even providing cybersecurity training.
That program is in Dover for a nine day mission to provide no-cost medical, dental, eye care and more to central Delaware residents.
Dover City Councilperson David Anderson applied for the program in 2019 after realizing just how desperate many residents are for accessible healthcare.
“We found out that in Kent County we have the worst health outcomes of the three counties. We’re the only county in Delaware that’s below the national average, almost one in four people have fair to poor outcomes," said Anderson. "So the need was real.”
And the pandemic only made wait times even longer. This training program allows military members to practice their skills in a real world setting, using the same medical equipment they’d use if deployed to provide disaster relief in another part of the country.
Kristine LaRocca is a family physician with the Delaware Army National Guard, she says they’re not just treating patient’s immediate needs, but helping them find access to long term care.
“I think the struggle is that people don’t know where to start," said LaRocca. "And so, showing that like, okay, establishing care with a primary care physician or also referred to as a family medicine physician is really the first place in navigation for their healthcare.”
LaRocca says their behavioral health unit is doing double duty as social workers, they’re helping many patients apply for Medicaid and find local doctors for follow up care.
She says she’s learned just how many people need this kind of care, and this program has been a hub for many new patients. She says she saw one patient that ended up having extremely high blood pressure, and she may have saved his life because he came in today.
All the patients seeking care, even if it’s just optical or dental care, have to first get a checkup from a doctor.
LaRocca says by getting an exam first, they might find problems the patient didn’t even know about, and treat those as well — or refer them to further treatment down the line.
Anderson adds being a part of this program has shown him local healthcare partners are willing to step up and help out. He hopes to organize more health fairs like this one, albeit smaller and without the help of the military.
He says the underlying issues also need to be addressed, the biggest one being the high demand for medical care in Southern Delaware, but not enough doctors to treat those patients.
“I’d like to see the state encourage, for Kent and Sussex county, doctors to relocate here and open up practices and encourage more physicians assistants and nurse practitioners to move here and join practices,” said Anderson.
Both Kent and Sussex counties have over 2,000 patients per primary care physician, and wait times to see a dentist or optometrist aren’t any better.
LaRocca agrees more doctors are needed; She went to medical school in Philadelphia before doing her residency with Christiana Care.
She says a big problem in Delaware is the state doesn’t have it’s own medical school. The only option right now is through the Delaware Institute of Medical Education and Research (also known as DIMER), a program created in 1969 as an alternative to a state-supported medical school. Up to 30 spots are reserved at two medical schools in Philadelphia for Delaware residents to apply — and 41 Delaware students graduated from the program last year.
But LaRocca says what’s often seen in the medical field is many students who graduate from medical school end up staying in the state they learned at. According to DIMER’s 2020 annual report, of the 41 graduates entering their residency, 14 ended up staying in Pennsylvania, only 5 went back to Delaware for their residency and the rest went to other parts of the country.
So, LaRocca says if Delaware had its own state-supported medical school, not only could they train more students, but more of those students would start their residency at Delaware hospitals, and be more likely to remain in-state after that.
Anderson says opening up a medical school would be a great idea, but a very difficult one. He says first, one of Delaware’s universities would need to step up to host the school, and the cost of opening one for both the university and the state would be pricey.
It would also be a long process, Anderson says it could take ten years to get a school like that off the ground, obtain proper accreditation and build relationships with healthcare providers in the state. But, he says, if it’ll take that long, why not start now?
For now, providing more incentives for doctors to come to and stay in Kent and Sussex counties is something the state can do to help. Bayhealth has been working on that, expanding their residency program to offer general surgery and emergency medicine residencies in coming years — as well as picking residents they anticipate will stay in Delaware.
And programs like IRT helps to address those immediate medical needs, and reduces the backlog of care for Delaware residents.
This is the first time an IRT program has come to Delaware since its start in 1992.
Anderson says this won’t be the last time IRT comes to the state, he’d like to see more initiatives, such as construction or cybersecurity in future years. And bringing this healthcare blitz back to Central Delaware is also something he’d like to see.
And the response has been huge. The team has so far seen over 800 patients, and are projecting to see over 3,000 by the end of the mission on August 9th.
The clinics opened Saturday and staff say long lines are forming three hours before they even open to seek care.
According to team members, dental work has been a major priority, with lots of patients coming in for extractions, cavity removals and just regular teeth cleanings.
Courtney Flippen is an optometry technician coming from Georgia. She says the patient load has been increasing every day. On Wednesday, they had reached their capacity for dental care, and were having to send patients back the next morning to get care.
And the eye care department is also very full, lots of patients were waiting to get eye exams. Flippen says they’ve been conducting a lot of new eye exams, especially for children who haven’t been to an optometrist before — but others are coming in because they woke up with some eye pain, and don’t know what’s wrong.
Patients needing glasses will get a prescription and a new set of glasses at no cost, provided they only need single vision lenses.
A pharmacy is also located on site to dispense various medications. LaRocca says this is all mimicking what would happen if the national guard needed to deploy to provide emergency medical care in a disaster.
She says with the wild weather in Delaware, it’s not unlikely these skills will come into use in the event of a major snowstorm, hurricane or tornado. About a quarter of the military members at the clinics are from Delaware, and the rest come from across the country to join these missions.
They all say the IRT program has been the most beneficial training experience they’ve had. The ability to learn and apply their skills in real world situations is far better than learning on a base. And all these skills are being put to use helping better communities across the country.
Folks looking to get no-cost medical, dental or eye care can visit one of three locations in Downtown Dover: South Dover, North Dover and Towne Point Elementary Schools.
The clinics are open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day through Monday, August 9th. No proof of insurance or identification is required to receive care, but a face mask is required due to COVID-19.
And all three locations provide the same care; dental or eye care isn’t limited to one place. Staff say they’re constantly trying to improve efficiency to treat as many patients as possible each day, and are aiming for at least 100 patients per division per day, but will treat as many as they can.
Roman Battaglia is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.