Treating patients with dignity is a top priority for Dr. Marie Kellett. She says this as she opens up a Family First Health office in Columbia, pointing to a service trip to rural Virginia and a severe car accident as reasons for her passion for helping rural, underserved communities.
In her fourth year of medical school, Kellett lost her left leg above the knee after she was hit by a drunk driver. She endured 12 surgeries, spent a month in a hospital’s intensive care unit and took two months away from school to recover.
During that time, Kellett had many visits with doctors. The ones who sat down with her and had a more personal bedside manner seemed like they were more supportive, Kellett recalled. It is why she believes so much now in sitting with patients and putting their needs first.
“I would have never asked to have been hit by a car, (but the result is) I am a better doctor, wife and mother,” Kellett said.
Kellett is running the first Family First Health office outside of York and Adams counties, where the the non-profit company operates. The office at 369 Locust St. formally opened Tuesday with a full schedule of patients and no issues, office staff told PennLive.
Kate Harmon, a spokeswoman for Family First Health, said between 500 and 700 patients in Lancaster County were traveling to York and Adams counties for doctor visits. A needs assessment study in 2014 conducted by Lancaster General Hospital also contributed to bringing the office to Columbia.
The Locust Street location is right on the main strip in Columbia, which is a relatively central location for those who went to neighboring counties for doctors’ care, Harmon said. With its five exam rooms, a doctor, a physician’s assistant and full staff, Harmon noted, the office is very similar to a typical family practice office.
Harmon said the center will operate from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Hours will expand as patients are brought in, she added, and the office aims to assist 3,000 patients in the first year of operation. New patients are still being accepted, and there was still room to be seen in October as of Monday.
Jenny Englerth, CEO of Family First Health, said it took about 15 months to get the facility up and running. Dental treatment may be offered down the line, but right now the focus is on health first, Englerth said.
Family First Health takes Medicare, Medicaid and health insurance and will treat uninsured patients. Fees are on a siding fee scale based on income. Englerth said the goal is to give more personal and complete care for underserved populations.
Kellett’s passion for underserved communities budded while she was studying biology as an undergraduate student. She went on a spring break service trip to southern Virginia near the Tennessee border, where residents were about an hour away from doctors. One man she met was had no running water — except for a stream that ran through his home. He used a wheelbarrow as a chair and took his prescription medication with water out of a bucket that sat on his table.
“Columbia isn’t Appalachia, but it has its own set of needs,” Kellett said, pointing to studies showing a need for healthcare in the area, even though conditions are better than what she saw on the service trip years ago.
In 2015, Family First recorded nearly 50,000 medical visits from 21,304 patients in its five York and Adams County locations. Another 18,914 dental visits were notched at three centers where dentists work. About 55 percent of patients lived at or below the poverty line, with more than half on Medicaid and 20 percent without any health insurance.
At the Oct. 6 grand opening ceremony, Kellett engaged in a brief conversation with a prospective patient concerned with having consistent health care in her area. The woman told Kellett she has gone to other doctors in the area but has struggled to find a doctor for more than a couple of years at a time.
After the conversation with the woman ended, Kellett went on to tell PennLive that the woman expressed one of the main concerns of people in the area: seeking a doctor who will listen and isn’t going to uproot in two or three years.
Kellett, a York County resident and mother to five sons, said she is only 15 or 20 minutes away from the Columbia office and is in it for the long haul.
“I’ll retire here,” Kellett said.