Public Health Pioneer | Eastern North Carolina Now

    Publisher's Note: This post appears here courtesy of ECU News Services. The author of this post is Spaine Stephens.

Dr. Doyle “Skip” Cummings received the 2023 Jim Bernstein Community Health Career Achievement Award Oct. 4 at the Foundation for Health Leadership & Innovation’s annual awards event in Chapel Hill. (Photos by Rhett Butler)

    Dr. Doyle "Skip" Cummings radiates a warmth that humanizes his work in public health and breathes life into his passion for making others' lives better. His visionary spirit guides other leaders from idea to action through his expertise and compassion for North Carolinians.

    Cummings, professor of public health and adjunct professor of family medicine in the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University, was presented the 2023 Jim Bernstein Community Health Career Achievement Award during an Oct. 4 Foundation for Health Leadership & Innovation's (FHLI) annual awards event in Chapel Hill.

    Each year, FHLI presents two awards to health leaders in North Carolina: the Jim Bernstein Community Health Career Achievement Award and the FHLI Community Achievement Award. Cummings' honor was presented by the North Carolina Healthcare Association.

    "I am very excited to accept this award, but I accept it on behalf of a large group of team members and partners," Cummings told the audience as he accepted the award. "I have been blessed beyond measure with fantastic opportunities, funding from multiple agencies and incredible partners in North Carolina. I am thankful for leadership at ECU and Eastern AHEC, some of whom are here tonight who have supported me and others in thinking outside the box to address our shared mission and vision for improved rural health equity."

    A champion for rural health

    Cummings, who is also Brody's Berbecker Distinguished Professor of Rural Medicine, grew up in West Virginia, where he completed his undergraduate work in pharmacy. He completed an internship in Chicago and a doctoral degree and post-doctoral training in pharmacy in Philadelphia, where he worked for six years and was recruited by Dr. Jim Jones at ECU, where he has been for the past 35 years.

    Jones was honored at the event as well, with a posthumous FHLI Lifetime Achievement Award for his extraordinary contributions to rural medicine. Jones, who died in May of this year, had a monumental impact on the field of family medicine and health care in eastern North Carolina, the state and beyond. After developing the family medicine program at ECU and becoming founding chair in 1976, he served in that role for two decades. He also held a variety of leadership roles that helped lay the groundwork for better health care and access for generations of North Carolinians.

    Like Jones, Cummings has spent decades working toward equitable health care and accessible service for patients across the state and in eastern North Carolina.


    "Dr. Cummings' work drives home our mission in eastern North Carolina and the state to address prominent health care challenges through his research on conditions including obesity, diabetes, hypertension and stroke," said Dr. Jason Higginson, executive dean of the Brody School of Medicine. "He has been critical in creating solutions that utilize telehealth and modern applications to reach our patients in rural communities, and his passion and expertise in public health ensure that ECU and the Brody School of Medicine remain at the forefront of progress toward better health and better lives for North Carolinians."

    From idea to impact

    Cummings is known among the state's tight public health circles as an 'idea man' whose vast knowledge of North Carolina's health care horizon can bring out the best in colleagues.

    "Overwhelmingly, there is a theme; Skip is the first person you should call if you have an idea and need to know how to move it forward," said Kim Schwartz, chief executive officer of Roanoke Chowan Community Health Center, during the awards ceremony. "He would never say, 'That won't work.' Skip will connect you with the people who will help you refine that idea."

    Schwartz said in addition to his expertise in pharmacy, Cummings knows how to consider the context surrounding patients' whole health needs.

    "Skip is a humbled and skilled researcher, a trailblazer, a visionary - and represents the pharmacy profession on the highest levels," she said. "Others I talked to describe him as 'gentle, kind, thoughtful, professional, intellectual, problem solver, advocate ... always considering our communities.'"

    Cummings would describe those attributes as catalysts to his calling.

    At a young age, he lost both of his parents to diabetes and cardiovascular disease - which influenced his path forward personally and professionally.

    "I was trained as a clinician and spent the first 10 years of my career helping to see patients in primary care - mostly patients with uncontrolled chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease - and trying to make sure that they were on the best treatment possible to control the diseases," Cummings said. "However, I was often discouraged, seeing patients who ended up in the hospital because they didn't have good access to care or had adverse social situations or other competing challenges, and many experienced the long-term complications of their uncontrolled disease."


    He became more interested in helping patients make informed choices and to help open doors to facilitate access, in turn building communities where outcomes were more likely to be positive. Through those efforts, he learned to stop, to listen and to empathize.

    "I have been privileged to work with many folks in other institutions and communities in North Carolina who have helped me to understand more about rural environments and what's really going on in people's lives and how to foster change," he said. "I have also learned more about both geographic and racial disparities in rural North Carolina and what are some of the issues that may contribute to these findings."

    Cummings has also turned his talents toward research as an "applied health services researcher" who is always searching for new ways to improve access and delivery of care for patients in rural areas. His research has worked to improve glycemic control for individuals with diabetes through lifestyle change and medication management, as well as several projects that aimed to lower blood pressure in patients with uncontrolled hypertension, one of the major risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

    "Given the access to care challenges that exist in our region, I have also worked for 10 years to examine how we might use telehealth strategies to connect with needy patients in both doctor's offices and hospitals but also in nontraditional settings," Cummings said. "These nontraditional settings have included children in school settings who don't have a regular source of care as well as patients who have transportation challenges or are homebound. We are now seeing them at home using telehealth strategies. I am also working with a small team to explore more about how we can help senior citizens in Pitt County who are struggling with affording and using their chronic medications correctly."

    An 'enduring commitment'

    With far-reaching implications for his research and work, Cummings thrives off the team approach to change.

    He is working as part of a grant project to study how telehealth might be used in patients' homes who have transportation obstacles or are homebound because of disease or disability.


    "We have helped a number of patients improve their quality of life by bringing the team-based care to the patient's bedside, even in the rural home setting," he said. "As telehealth continues to advance, more individuals will find it useful to utilize this care strategy and we at ECU are poised and ready."

    Jill Jennings, telehealth program manager in Brody's Department of Public Health, works closely with Cummings and credits his 'clear vision' for supporting the needs of North Carolinians.

    "He has an extraordinary ability to understand and articulate a problem, envision a solution, communicate that to funders, and assemble the right teams to enact his ideas," Jennings said. "His enduring commitment to serve the region and his exceptional relationship-building skills mean that when the time comes to collaborate, people jump on board. The communities served through his projects feel included and empowered as he makes efforts to work alongside them rather than to control or dictate to them. Meanwhile, he ensures the next generation of committed providers will be there to carry on the work through his great example and close mentorship."

    Dr. Tom Irons, professor emeritus of pediatrics at Brody and medical director for Access East and the N.C. Agromedicine Institute, won the Bernstein Award in 2021 and is proud to see Cummings honored in kind.

    "Skip Cummings is a committed lifelong servant who has for decades practiced first-class community-engaged research with and for people of eastern North Carolina," Irons said. "His humble, gracious manner belies his brilliant insight and tenacious determination. I'm proud to have served alongside him for these many years, and proud to be his friend."

    Dr. Lorrie Basnight, executive director of Eastern AHEC and Brody's associate dean for continuing medical education, said Cummings has been "relentless" in his efforts to advocate for rural patients.

    "Dr. Cummings has led numerous projects designed to reach deep into our rural areas and address challenging health issues," she said, "and he always focuses on what the community needs, not what he thinks they need, or what the clinicians need. What stands out most is that he is present, thoughtful and involved. He knows our region deeply and keeps the needs of others at the forefront."

    As for the future, Cummings hopes that more resources can go into addressing internal and external challenges that limit opportunities to be healthy including "improving economic development, educational achievement, community environments and cultural norms that make the healthy choices the easiest and best choices for individuals and families," he said.

    During his award acceptance speech, he challenged the audience to continue rural health work and highlighted four things he learned over his years of service.


    "Listening first: Local folks have the best perspective on the problem and often insight into the solution as well," he said. "Utilize shared leadership with humility that empowers local leadership. Whenever possible, practice true collaboration by putting your resources on the table and taking your hand away. To students: Remember that change happens at the speed of trust, and trust happens at the speed of human relationships. So take time to invest in relationships."

    He closed with a call to collective and inspired action.

    "We have much to celebrate recently in rural health in North Carolina," Cummings said. "However, there will be continued challenges. Please do not take your foot off the gas; let's continue to work together to improve health outcomes for those in need."
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