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Texas Doc of the Year Builds Rural Care Network

By John Commins  
   March 02, 2016

Jasmine Sulaiman, MD, started a rural clinic in an old flower shop a decade ago. Today she supervises four clinics covering a three-county service area. The next goal she's set for herself: Improve access to mental healthcare through a tele-psychiatry program.

When Jasmine Sulaiman, MD, was interviewing for a job as the only primary care physician at the nascent Health Center of Southeast Texas, she couldn't help but look toward the heavens for guidance.

That's because there was no roof on the Cleveland, TX bank where the interview took place. It was 2005 and Hurricane Rita had just blown through the small town of 7,707 souls located 45 miles north-northeast of Houston.

Coming from Ivy League-affiliated St. Elizabeth's Medical Center in Utica, New York, and with a family practice specialty, Sulaiman, 54, knew she could have her pick of jobs in physician-starved rural Texas, where she and her husband had relocated to escape winter's grip.

She picked Cleveland, where the local hospital was in financial straits (it closed in 2014), and where she hired on as the sole physician, earning considerably less than the market could demand, and working at a health center that as yet didn't exist. The hospital served a patient mix that included 70% uninsured.

"I was interviewed by a group of people all from the community," she says. "They formed a board to start a clinic because the hospital was losing a lot of money through the ER. This is one of the poorest counties in Texas. When I came, they held hands, about 10 of them, and they prayed, and I was thinking 'OK, I really want to be here and see if I can make it work.'"

"They didn't have a clinic. Actually, they didn't have anything. They had one person from the hospital to help set up the clinic," Sulaiman says. "I said 'OK. I'm going to take this job.' My husband said 'it's a 40-mile drive.' I said 'I don't mind. I want to take this job.'"

Within a few months, a clinic opened in a converted flower shop. Sulaiman began seeing 40 patients a day, and remained on call 24/7 as the center's sole physician. Not surprisingly, the federally qualified Health Center of Southeast Texas quickly grew to meet the urgent demand. Today it includes seven physician assistants and nurse practitioners, all of whom rotated through her practice during their training. The center moved out of the flower shop and now operates in a 6,300-sq.-ft. building with nine exam rooms.

But that's not all.

"I work more hours than usual, but I don't have any complaints. I really enjoy what I do." -- Sulaiman

In addition, HCST expanded to include three additional clinics in a three-county service area, all supervised by Sulaiman, who also continues to see patients in addition to her administrative tasks. She also created a program to upgrade medical care at the county jail, led the movement to designate HCST as a Level 2 Patient Centered Medical Home, helped develop an educational program that exposes local high school students to careers in healthcare, and volunteers once a year to provide free care in Mexico.

John Commins is a content specialist and online news editor for HealthLeaders, a Simplify Compliance brand.

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