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Committed to Care Everywhere

By Shaw Thompson

The Importance of Rural Health Clinics to the Region

In South Carolina, 27 percent of the population lives in rural, non-urbanized areas. For many of these residents, access to schools, employment, even grocery stores, means traveling miles from their home, often with limited resources to transportation. Access to healthcare is no exception as more and more rural hospitals reduce services or are forced to close their doors completely.

To ensure care for those living in these areas of northeastern South Carolina, healthcare organizations like McLeod Health have established federally certified Rural Health Clinics (RHC) as options for primary health care.

Rural health clinics comprise an integral part of the nation’s healthcare delivery system. There are more than 4,400 federally certified rural health clinics providing primary care services to approximately eight million people in 45 states, according to the National Association of Rural Health Clinics.

McLeod Physician Associates, the physician practice network of McLeod Health, currently operates nine rural health clinics in the communities it serves.

The Rural Health Clinics program was created in 1977 to specifically address these needs. Rural health clinics receive enhanced Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements which allow clinicians to live and practice in these areas of the country.

McLeod Family Medicine Darlington is nestled in one of the most rural areas of South Carolina. Bounded by Chesterfield and Marlboro counties to the north, Lee County to the south, Kershaw County to the west, and Dillon County to the north, all of these areas share shortages of access to primary care, higher rates of poverty, and greater prevalence of chronic health concerns. (Source: These shared characteristics are why the presence of a rural health clinic remains critical to this region of the state.

Established in 1998, McLeod Family Medicine Darlington serves this region with physicians Dr. Parker Lilly, Dr. Daniel Owens, Dr. Jeffery Scharstein, Dr. Vinay Jagadeesha, and Family Nurse Practitioner Ashley Lowe. Dr. Lilly joined McLeod Family Medicine Darlington in 2002, immediately following the completion of his Family Medicine Residency training at McLeod Regional Medical Center.

“During my residency training, I had the opportunity to train in Darlington under Dr. Tommy Wilson,” said Dr. Lilly. “I was able to observe firsthand how a physician presence was important -- really essential -- to this community. I always planned on practicing and serving patients in a rural setting, so Darlington seemed like a good, natural fit.”

Nearly 20 years later, that choice continues to benefit both Dr. Lilly and the residents of this community.

“Our patients come from not only Darlington, but the surrounding counties,” said Dr. Lilly. “When you live in an area with limited or no local options for a doctor, you have to make a decision about where to drive for your care. Here we can help them with their ongoing care, but we can also be the front door to the other resources of McLeod Health by referring them to specialists and surgeons. They trust us to help them get the care they need, as close to home as possible.”

All rural health clinics must utilize the skills of a Physician Assistant or Nurse Practitioner and focus on primary care. Nurse Practitioner Ashley Lowe has served patients at McLeod Family Medicine Darlington since 2008.

“Serving in the rural community as a Nurse Practitioner often means providing care to more than one generation of a family,” said Lowe. “We provide care for patients from the very young to the very old, and often become attached to our patients. It is rewarding to see patients making progress toward health goals for themselves, as well as for their family. That is why I choose to be a part of this practice.”

Darlington native Irene Woods has health concerns that require ongoing medical care. She needs the help and supervision of a primary care provider to keep her diabetes controlled and her arthritis pain eased. For more than 15 years, that help has come from McLeod Family Medicine Darlington.

“I honestly don’t know what I would do without Ms. Ashley,” said Irene. “I tell everyone I know that if you are sick and need help, she and the folks at McLeod Family Medicine Darlington will take good care of you.”

“We are a crucial part of their access to care. If we are not here, our patients would either go to an emergency room, or even worse, go without care at all,” echoed Lowe. “Being here where they live, when they need us -- we make a difference.”