A dream for a modern medical complex on Edgewood’s Section 16 is creeping closer to reality, as First Choice Medical Center is looking for ways to partner with the University of New Mexico and others in the hopes of setting an example for rural health care.

The idea is still in early stages, but the hope is to expand First Choice’s offerings to include urgent care and preventative care in a much larger facility. Currently the clinic has about 8,000 square feet.

Described as “very positive, and real” by Edgewood Mayor Brad Hill, Santa Fe County would take a lead role in the process of creating a regional health center.

Specifically, Hill said Santa Fe County would own the building. “They do have access to funding we don’t have,” he added. “It could be the model of what rural health care could look like.” Edgewood’s updated master plan calls for a medical complex on Section 16, in what in the future is planned to be the town center; Santa Fe County already has a fire department building there.

There is no time frame set to build this new health care facility, and it would require $5 million to $10 million to build it, but First Choice’s Chief Operations Officer, Melissa Manlove, said the idea would be to “play on one another’s strengths.”

Building on UNM’s Project ECHO, which its website describes as “a revolution in medical education and care delivery,” the idea is to make specialists available to train medical professionals in underserved areas like the East Mountains and Estancia Valley. “Project ECHO links expert specialist teams at an academic hub with primary care clinicians in local communities,” the website says. “Primary care clinicians, the spokes in our model, become part of a learning community, where they receive mentoring and feedback from specialists. Together they manage patient cases so that patients get the care they need.”

First Choice is also working with the state’s health department, and hopes to deflect some types of patient care from county health centers. The building would be designed to expand, Manlove said, adding, “This is not a cookie cutter building.”

Partners like the Department of Health, Santa Fe County and UNM would have office space in the building also, Hill said.

The ECHO model is “essentially Skype on steroids,” Manlove explained, giving a primary care provider like a doctor access to a specialist via the internet, giving that doctor both training and a way to treat patients locally who otherwise would have to find a specialist, most of whom are located in the state’s few urban centers.

“This is not having patients sit in a room and over a camera see a specialist,” Manlove said. “This is providers—rural and primary care providers—learning to treat patients with specialized conditions by virtue of having expertise and specialists who are on the other side of the camera.”

Manlove said the other big change being contemplated by First Choice’s planning is “really a new model” with the Department of Health. Public health offices have been established throughout the state—in the Tricounty they are in Moriarty and Estancia. “They have long considered themselves the safety net,” Manlove said.

She would like to see a cooperative relationship which would allow both the public health offices and the community health center play to their strengths.

While Hill said there is no timeline, even an estimated one, on when the center might be expanded, he added, “A lot of this groundwork has been getting discussions going with the Department of Health and UNM, and that’s happening. Santa Fe County getting engaged is huge. I think Santa Fe County likes to be thought of as innovative, and this is an innovative project.”

Manlove said state Sen. Sue Wilson Beffort is an ally who believes in a community health center model. “We’re poised,” she said. “I think we’ll see within the next eight months … [whether] funding will be made available.”

If funding is there, the next part of the process would be finding out from the public what its needs and wants are for a health care facility in Edgewood.

Calling it “a lot of concentric circles of planning,” Manlove said First Choice has been going in this direction “for a long time now,” but recently has seen increased focus from federal funders “and the way health care is going.”

For more information, contact the town of Edgewood at 505-286-4518.