Rural America is an amazing place to call home. That’s why nearly 20 percent of the country’s population live and work in rural communities. However, all too often we find ourselves bemoaning the disparate health outcomes of rural America – lack of primary care providers, decreasing life expectancy and the threat of hospital closures.
For those residing in the Mississippi River Delta and the Alabama Black Belt, these are ever-present realities. For instance, 249 of the 252 counties and parishes in the Delta Regional Authority’s service area are either fully or partially classified as Health Professional Shortage Areas by the Health Resources and Services Administration. Since 2010, 38 rural hospitals in DRA’s eight states have been closed, a loss of more than 1,400 beds.
While these are realities that must be addressed, it is incumbent on those serving rural areas to highlight the many innovative and collaborative partnerships being forged to address these pressing issues. That’s why DRA is proud to join the National Organization of State Offices of Rural Health to “celebrate the power of rural” on National Rural Health Day. Observed every third Thursday in November, the day highlights the unique health care challenges facing rural communities and how rural stakeholders are trying to address them. The day serves as a reminder of the selfless, community-minded spirit that prevails in rural America.
DRA exists to support the economic advancement of the 10 million residents who call the Delta home, including their access to health care. Since 2018, DRA has invested over $3.3 million on 15 projects to update rural medical facilities and partnered on over $6.3 million in health care-related workforce development. Additionally, DRA implements three programs specifically focused on improving health care access and health systems within the Delta.
Through a partnership with the Defense Department and the military’s reserve forces, DRA sponsors annual Innovative Readiness Training missions in Delta communities to bring medical, dental and optical care to uninsured or underinsured populations. The program improves military readiness by providing trained military medical personnel with in-field emergency response training while simultaneously providing quality health care services to Delta residents at no cost. The next IRT mission will have sites simultaneously occurring next summer in Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas, and we expect to see a record number of patients.
DRA’s Delta Doctors program works with the State Department to allow foreign physicians trained in the U.S. to work in medically underserved areas or health professional shortage areas within the DRA footprint for three years through a J-1 visa waiver. Last year alone, DRA sponsored and placed 160 doctors in the Delta region through this program.
In collaboration with the Health Resources and Services Administration and the National Rural Health Resource Center, DRA enhances health care delivery in the Delta through intensive, in-depth and long-term technical assistance to rural hospitals and medical facilities. The program supports capacity building for quality improvement, telehealth and integration of social services, helping hospitals increase financial viability and operational efficiency.
This year, given the pandemic, increased emphasis has been placed on telemedicine initiatives to better connect rural Americans with physicians. While I personally champion telemedicine as a quality alternative, the well-documented “digital divide” has greatly inhibited the ability of many rural Americans to benefit from this advancement. With that said, DRA will continue with efforts to deploy enhanced broadband capacity in our rural communities.
The future of rural health is ever-changing. On National Rural Health Day, we support these changes and look forward to a vibrant future that embraces new technologies, innovation and enhanced partnerships that support 60 million Americans living in rural communities. Now more than ever, we have to continue fighting for access to quality health care, no matter your ZIP code.
Chris Caldwell is the federal co-chairman of the Delta Regional Authority, which helps create jobs, build communities and improve the lives of residents in the eight-state Delta region.