United Health Centers of the San Joaquin Valley: Colleen Curtis, CEO

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In the midst of budget cuts and healthcare reform, one group of clinics in California is growing in its commitment to care for a rural, migrant population. United Health Centers of the San Joaquin Valley is dedicated to managing a population often overlooked or one that doesn’t usually seek out care by providing “comprehensive medical, dental and community health services to the medically underserved.”

United Health Centers (UHC), which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2011, is comprised of seven medical clinics and six dental clinics around Fresno County. It also includes a host of Women, Infants and Children (WIC) clinics. In all, the clinics see about 200,000 patient visits per year, with about 80 percent Spanish-speaking patients. Most patients are migrant farmworkers, some local and some who live in the area only during the peak harvesting seasons.

The UHC clinics offer general and family-medicine services, general dentistry, laboratory, X-rays, preventive-medicine programs, behavioral health, women’s and children’s health and in-house pharmacies.

“We want our patients to feel like they always have a place to go,” said Chief Executive Officer Colleen Curtis. “These are people who need services and have nowhere else to go. They can come here and be treated like family.”

Community outreach and support

UHC, through partnerships and tracking initiatives, is heavily involved in improving the health of the community it serves. UHC is one of 12 community health centers in the Central Valley Health Network. Members of the network have similar patient populations and familiar characteristics across a 17-county region.

UHC has implemented an electronic health record (EHR) and has formed a network with five other health centers to implement an EHR for 250 providers across the clinics. The network received a $3-million grant to pursue the opportunity, and Curtis says this model has been an excellent example for other networks that have followed outside the Central Valley area.

As with many healthcare systems, UHC is looking at ways to improve the management of chronic diseases and keep patients out of the hospital. Curtis said the clinics are developing databases to track outcomes for patients and implement best practices.

One initiative, ongoing since 2000, has tracked about 3,000 patients with diabetes. Initially, the project saw A1C measures come down below the national average, and Curtis cites the tracking efforts as a reason for that improvement. The next step in managing these patients is using an EHR to exchange information with hospitals and help prevent admissions by adequately managing complications related to diabetes.

With the wealth of services UHC offers, it is also important to ensure patients have access to these services. Being located in an area of migrant workers and high unemployment, UHC provides transportation services as well as assistance with social services. Curtis said the center collaborates with the Central California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on community projects, including mobile vans that travel the community to let people know about healthcare services, where to find employment, how to apply for social services, and other needs.

Expanding facilities and services

Over the past few years, UHC has seen drastic budget cuts as well as significant growth in the organization. Around 2009, the centers lost about $2 million in State funding because of budget cuts, but some fortuitous federal grant opportunities appeared at the same time, allowing the centers to continue their expansion efforts.

“The budget cuts were quite a hurdle to get over,” Curtis said. “We had to become more efficient, have some cutbacks, but also continue our expansion efforts. At the same time as the cuts, once-in-a-lifetime grant opportunities came about that required us to move quickly.”

One grant came from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that provided $1.5 million toward a $4.5-million administration-building and dental-clinic project. The new 4,000-square-foot dental clinic opened in June and replaced the previous 1,500-square-foot facility.

Through an Affordable Care Act – Capital Development Grant, UHC received $7 million to upgrade the Parlier Clinic and build a new medical and dental facility in Mendota, Calif. This included remodeling the old clinic and moving dental and administrative services into a new administrative building. The remodeled clinic then allowed for an expanded pharmacy, 27 exam rooms, and space for nine physicians. That campus re-opened in September 2011.

A third project in progress is remodeling and expanding a clinic in Mendota to include 12,000 square feet for eight medical providers and three dentists. The new clinic will include WIC and offer behavioral-health services.

“Since 2001, we have made a huge investment in our facilities,” Curtis said. “We take great pride in what our facilities look like so that our providers feel good about treating patients, and our patients can come to a beautiful facility that they deserve and would rival any in the nation.”

In addition to clinic expansion, UHC also has expanded services to include dermatology telemedicine. Working with the University of California – Davis and the University of California San Francisco, many patients have already been seen and diagnosed at a UHC clinic with a specialist providing the plan of care.

“Telemedicine is a great service for our patients and an education tool for our providers,” Curtis said. “They receive diagnoses from specialists and can provide treatment options the next time they see these outbreaks.”

Throughout adding services and expanding facilities, UHC has remained strong and acquired little debt. Curtis looks toward the future of providing the best care for patients through recruiting new providers.

“The patient population is expected to grow, and UHC will build facilities to ensure we have the capacity to provide medical and dental services for those patients,” Curtis said. “We want to be that medical home where patients get all their needs taken care of. We are moving toward that vision one step at a time.”

-by Patricia Chaney

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

David Phillips April 16, 2013 at 12:32 pm

I enjoyed reading this article even though it was dated February 2012. And the photo at the top of the introductory article is not Colleen but when you read more that is her photo.

It has been a very active year since Feb 2012 i.e. UHC opened a new facility in Corcoran, CA and obtained grant funding to begin construction on two school based clinics. We are finishing an expansion of the Kerman health center to begin optometry services and we have added Psychiatry services as well. We incorporated the use of the electronic health record and you should visit our new and improved web site to view other activities.


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