National Health Center Week, Aug. 9-15, recognizes the backbone of the nation’s primary care system.

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  • Dennis Freeman, Ph.D., is the chief executive officer of Cherokee Health Systems.

The importance of a health center to the community it serves has never been more evident than during the challenges this community and the entire nation are facing during the coronavirus pandemic. Aug. 9-15 is National Health Center Week. This is an especially appropriate time to reflect on the varied contributions health centers are making in their communities.

Health centers are the backbone of the nation’s primary care system. Health centers serve 30 million people on an annual basis, including 1 in 9 of the nation’s children, 1 in 5 rural residents and 1 in 3 living in poverty. The number of Americans who receive care at a health center is increasing every year. This year the increase will be larger than usual because of the pandemic.

Across Tennessee the COVID-19 pandemic shows no signs of letting go. The daily drumbeat of grim statistics tells the story of this public crisis. More than 100,000 Tennesseans are known to have been infected with this novel coronavirus though many of the state’s residents have not been tested and the actual number who carry the virus is undoubtedly higher. The health care system is challenged to keep pace.

Pandemic has affected more than health

Beyond the threat to the health of our community, the pandemic has had other deleterious consequences. The economy is suffering. Businesses have closed and companies have reduced employment. Thousands of Tennesseans have lost their jobs. The ranks of those without health insurance has risen dramatically. 

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The pandemic is having an impact on our emotional health. Most of us feel unsettled and have concerns about the future. Social isolation is taking a toll on some. Surveys of the general public show increased levels of depression, anxiety and general distress. The number of suicides has risen. The devastating impact of substance abuse is more visible. 

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Beyond the exam room

Amid the crisis, Cherokee Health Systems, your health center, stands as a beacon on the hill, a safe port for many during the pandemic storm. Cherokee’s services are available to all on an ability-to-pay basis. Services are provided using a nationally-acclaimed clinical model that includes behavioral health clinicians in the primary care team. Our approach to care reaches beyond the exam room to address factors that contribute to poor health, like nutrition, homelessness and poverty. 

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Workers load cars with a box of food at a drive-thru food distribution at Cherokee Health Systems on Western Ave. in Knoxville, Tennessee on Saturday, April 4, 2020. Held by Second Harvest, Cherokee Health and UT, the drive-thru provided one box of nutritionally responsible food for each valid Knox County address given. (Photo: Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel)

Cherokee’s comprehensive approach to the care of our patients is especially suited for these trying times when so many of our neighbors are feeling stressed. As the coronavirus has taken hold in our community, requests for our care have risen to unprecedented levels. Last year Cherokee provided care to 71,274 patients. We are on pace to see 75,000 patients during 2020. While we will always remain available to those who have nowhere else to turn for care, over 30% of our patients have either commercial insurance or Medicare. They choose Cherokee because of the quality care we provide and the passionate commitment of our providers to their patients. 

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