Efforts to improve access to care, add more research capabilities and grow the number of physicians to Southeastern North Carolina are advancing thanks to Novant Health’s partnership with UNC Health and the UNC School of Medicine.


  • The medical school program is growing and more medical school graduates are training to practice in rural areas where the need is greatest.
  • Families now have new, expanded options to pediatric specialty care.
  • More clinical trials are giving patients more access to new forms of treatment that are also more convenient.

Here’s the details:

1. More access to highly trained doctors via UNC School of Medicine

Recent academic growth at the Wilmington campus is leading the charge. Since opening in 2016, the branch has educated third- and fourth-year medical students in surgery, family medicine, internal medicine and OB-GYN, among other disciplines. With the campus expecting to double its third-year medical students to 30 within a few years, the school is also planning the growth of residency training programs.

The UNC School of Medicine’s FIRST program and the Kenan rural scholars program are two pathway programs where medical students in their first year make important decisions about their future careers.

The FIRST program accelerates medical school completion so graduates finish in three years instead of four. That means they start treating patients sooner with an affiliated residency program in family medicine, pediatrics, psychiatry or general surgery. Three years of service in a rural area of North Carolina follows. The public benefit? Patients have more access to highly qualified, well-trained doctors in their communities sooner.

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Dr. Joseph Pino is smiling and wearing a white lab coat.
Dr. Joseph Pino

Over time, the class growth will help confront physician shortages and meet the growing need for care in rural and underserved areas, said Dr. Joe Pino, associate dean and campus director of the UNC School of Medicine’s Wilmington campus. The bigger the medical school becomes, the more chance that some graduates will settle on the coast to care for surrounding communities.

2. Better care for rural areas

Retaining rural-based graduates is critical to delivering that access to more patients living across southeastern North Carolina.

“We are really interested in diversifying our health care workforce,” Pino said. “If we can recruit soon-to-be doctors from rural or underserved areas, then they can feel comfortable entering practice in those rural settings.”

Dr. Janalyn Beste is wearing a white lab coat and is smiling.
Dr. Janalyn Beste

To that end, Pino and Dr. Janalynn Beste, family medicine residency program director at NHRMC, are developing a rural track for the family medicine residency at Black River Health Services in Pender County.That will also be part of the Kenan rural scholars program.If you live in central Pender County, you have a 50-mile round trip to Wilmington. A long drive to a larger city with more healthcare options isn’t the only issue facing patients in rural areas. Rural residents are more likely to use Medicaid and Medicare than patients in other areas, and not all health care providers accept those payment sources.

That’s why stationing the new rural family medicine residency at Black River Health Services made sense. Black River is a federally qualified health center look-alike, which means it qualifies for special reimbursement through Medicare and Medicaid. The healthcare providers who work there can also receive loan repayment.

Starting in 2024, residents will spend their first year treating patients at NHRMC, then move on to Pender County for their second and third years.

Pino said this rural track will help motivate doctors fresh out of school to practice in nearby areas. Medical students who are in the Kenan rural scholars program will have the opportunity to also train at Black River. The hope is that they too will want to pursue training through this rural track when they complete medical school.

“Your best shot at retaining people in the region is having them come from a rural background, and having a rural heart,” he said.

3. Specialty pediatrics are growing

Medical services for children who need specialty care are also expanding as part of Novant Health’s partnership with UNC Health in Wilmington. That means more care closer to home and shorter wait times to see specialty providers.

This year physicians began treating children experiencing arthritis, kidney issues and urological conditions.

Those new services are in addition to expanded services, with more pediatric specialists having started in Wilmington this year. Three full-time cardiologists are now treating kids with heart conditions; three physicians are providing care for digestive disorders; and a full-time hematology nurse practitioner is addressing blood cell disorders.

Children are seen and treated at Novant Health Nunnelee Pediatric Multispecialty Care - Autumn Hall and Novant Health Betty H. Cameron Women’s & Children’s Hospital.

4. Growth in clinical trials and research

Novant Health is also working to expand capabilities around clinical trials, including research involving health care disparities.

NHRMC researchers are participating in dozens of clinical trials and research projects across therapeutic areas including cancer care and pediatrics. The approach offers many patients the option for treatment closer to home, said Mark J. King, vice president of research and innovation at Novant Health.

When it comes to cancer care, oncologists at Novant Health Zimmer Cancer Institute have access to experts at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center in Chapel Hill, a National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive center. “Through our collaboration we have access to leading disease experts, and we’re working to advance treatment options for patients in the coastal region,” King said.

On another research front, Novant Health is working to study the disparities in access, equity and value that negatively affect the health of low-income, un- or under-insured patients and others.

“The best predictor of health outcomes isn’t family history or smoking or cancer; it’s a ZIP code,” King said, referring to the geographical link between illnesses and socioeconomic statuses. Quality food options may be limited in rural or urban areas; think the number of fast-food restaurants versus farmers markets.

Research scientists are working with the UNC Center for Health Equity Research and using Cape Fear Collective data to study the region’s disparities and other social determinants of health.