Changemakers: Dr. Buchanan of Upper Cumberland Family Physicians Talks Importance of VHAN for Rural Providers

On a recent episode of VHAN’s miniVHAN Mondays podcast, Dr. Ernie Buchanan of Upper Cumberland Family Physicians (UCFP) and network Regional Medical Director for Cookeville, TN, talked about UCFP’s challenges as a rural practice, and why they rely on VHAN’s support as a clinically integrated network.

Nearly 1 in 5 Americans—60 million people—live in rural areas and depend on local hospitals and medical practices for their healthcare. In fact, 93% of Tennessee is considered rural, with the majority of its 95 counties home to over 50% of residents living in a rural community. Today’s rural providers are confronting overwhelming challenges, including the opioid crisis, mounting behavioral health concerns, hospital closures and patients with social problems that negatively impact their health.

At times, practicing medicine in rural America can feel isolating—and that’s why Dr. Buchanan appreciates being a part of a clinically integrated network.

“We live in a state that is predominately rural, but we do have larger urban areas—and each community is unique. But to have a network of like-minded peers that we can connect with and learn from can help me feel like I’m not alone,” Dr. Buchanan says. He appreciates the network’s emphasis on peer-to-peer learning and being able to leverage the VHAN resources available on the Hub.

Dr. Buchanan also spoke about a rise in behavioral health disorders in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have inadequate behavioral health services in Tennessee, and that’s not going to get better anytime soon,” he says. “It’s especially bad the further away you get from a population center. Many of us ‘old-timey country doctors’ who are still practicing comprehensive medicine are treating things that we haven’t always treated, including bipolar patients, patients with schizophrenia and adults with focus disorders. There’s a whole world of pharmacology that’s come around in the last 20 years that VHAN’s Dr. Abhi Saxena has been able to help me get comfortable with quickly.”

On several occasions Dr. Buchanan has reached out to Dr. Saxena, MD, MBA, medical director of hospital services for Vanderbilt Behavioral Health, and a leader in VHAN’s behavioral health initiatives and webinars. The two physicians have collaborated on  treatment plans to improve UCFP’s behavioral health services.

Added Support During the COVID-19 Crisis
In 2020, when COVID-19 hit Cookeville and cases started to rise among UCFP’s patients, Dr. Buchanan again turned to VHAN for guidance and support. VHAN organized group calls and webinars at different points during the pandemic, helping members implement telehealth services, providing education on new COVID-19 treatments and holding town halls about the coronavirus vaccines.

“We were able to adapt best practices for personal protective equipment and keeping patients safe in the lobby by doing what Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) was doing,” Dr. Buchanan explains. “VUMC wanted to share that success with us, and when we have success, we want to share it with them. That was the first time we’ve ever had a network besides our own friends in town actually reach across the state to Columbia or West Tennessee or UT in Knoxville and allow us to benefit from their expertise for free.”

During the podcast episode, Dr. Buchanan discussed other ways UCFP relies on VHAN, such as tapping into the network’s care coordination services, using standardized care paths and getting timely Continuing Medical Education credits on opioids and COVID-19 through VHAN’s QuizTime tool. He also shared the importance of leveraging a team-based approach to improve patient and team member satisfaction and how he engages VHAN care team extenders, including social workers and pharmacists, to help meet patients where they are.

UCFP has been a member of VHAN since 2014. “It’s incredible to see how VHAN has evolved over the past few years,” he says.

Click here to listen to the podcast and learn more about Dr. Buchanan and UCFP. Additionally, if you are in the Cookeville area and would like to connect with Dr. Buchanan as your network Regional Medical Director, email   

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