Bridging the Divide: Partnership Among Public and Private Sectors Rally to Rural America Needs
November 16, 2023
Greater Access to Education, Economic, Health and Technology Advances Pave the Way to Prosperity
Rural America has long been the nation’s backbone. Whether providing the country’s food or essential resources, rural Americans have reliably answered the nation’s call to action – from agriculture to national security and everywhere in between. Despite countless contributions, rural communities today face numerous challenges, including limited access to educational opportunities, economic possibilities, health services, and the power of technology to connect globally.
While American balladeer Woody Guthrie called out, “The Land Was Made for You and Me,” Rural Americans increasingly find themselves left out of possibilities for future prosperity. While more than 46 million Americans live in rural communities, rural locales lag behind non-rural communities in almost every measure of prosperity, from poverty rates to employment opportunities.
Though Guthrie’s famed lyrics, amber grain and spacious skies suggested unlimited possibilities, rural Americans often live hours away from primary medical care, emergency services, and specialist care providers. Their well-being – indeed, their survival – often relies on a tenuous broadband connection. What’s more, the systems put in place that are intended to address their needs are usually based on urban and suburban expectations.
Recently, more than 20 top leaders from academia, associations, corporations, and government met in Washington, DC, in a candid conversation hosted by FINN Partners and OffScrip Health to discuss these challenges – but more importantly – the solutions they both believe and know firsthand can make a difference in the lives of rural Americans. What made these conversations compelling was that they sat around the table – without slides or prepared statements – and talked about what they were doing and what was working. They united around a shared commitment to champion solutions. [Read the eBook Heartbreak in the Heartland here.]
According to one of the gathering’s moderators, Sarah Dash, CEO of the Alliance for Health Policy: “We must continue to change the narrative about how rural America is viewed and overcome the stereotypes that continue to perpetuate. Rural communities are far more diverse, innovative, and vibrant than they’re given credit for. We must educate ourselves about the people we seek to serve and work with them to create the kind of programs that will move the needle in a meaningful way.”
Expanding Broadband to Connect the Nation
One of rural communities’ more significant challenges is high-speed internet access. The digital divide hinders education, economic growth, and access to vital health services. To address this issue, initiatives like the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Rural Digital Opportunity Fund have been launched to provide funds for broadband infrastructure in underserved areas. Public-private partnerships are also crucial in expanding broadband access, with companies collaborating to build networks in rural regions.
“Poverty rates in rural communities are higher than those in urban areas, and the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) helps ensure rural residents can afford the broadband they need for work, education, and healthcare,” shared Gary Lynch, a Global Practice Leader at Verizon. “At Verizon, we have health equity programs on top of the ACP that help those individuals get devices to manage their health. What will happen to the 20 million Americans using the program when federal funding runs out in mid-2024?”
Virtual Learning as a Path to Progress
Rural students often need equal access to quality education. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the shift toward online learning, highlighting the need for virtual education solutions. Schools and organizations have invested in virtual learning platforms and distance education programs to address this challenge. Mobile learning centers and Wi-Fi-equipped school buses have also been deployed to ensure that students in remote areas can access educational resources, but more investment is needed.
Agricultural Innovation Tapping the Great Potential of the Heartland
Farming communities are the heart of rural America. They face unique challenges, including fluctuating markets and climate change. To support rural farmers, varied solutions are underway, including training in sustainable farming practices, affordable loans and grants and promoting local food markets. Government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and agricultural extension services are working to support farmers in a changing world. But now all regions and farms are the same.
“The narrative around how rural areas are stereotyped as older, poorer, sicker, uneducated, and white must change, says Amy Elizondo, Chief Strategy Officer of the National Rural Health Association. ”If you look at one rural community, you have seen one rural community – it’s not representative of the entire spectrum of rural America. Rural communities possess a vast depth of innovation, as they often must use what little resources they have for the incredibly diverse communities they serve.”
Native American Empowerment
Native American communities face disparities across the board – in health, education, and economic opportunities. Solutions must be rooted in respecting tribal sovereignty and self-determination. Collaboration between tribal governments, Federal agencies, and nonprofits is critical to addressing these inequities. Initiatives that support tribal entrepreneurship, cultural preservation, and access to quality health are making a difference. Expanding educational opportunities for Native American youth, including scholarships and culturally sensitive curricula, is also a focus.
The Washington, D.C., gathering included one of the nation’s leading public health advocates for Native Americans – Rear Admiral (ret.) James Galloway, MD, formerly part of the Surgeon General’s leadership team and now chief medical and partnership officer at Arc Health, has dedicated most of his career as a physician and public health expert to rallying this community. According to Rear Admiral (ret.) Dr. Galloway:
“Particularly in light of the health care provider shortages, as well as for the overall improvement of patient care, the proposed and highly supported concept of the team approach to health care to include Community Health Representatives as an approach to rural health is an essential component of quality health care, especially in rural communities.”
Telehealth Brings Access to Care Closer to Home
Access to health services in rural areas has long been a concern. Telemedicine is a game-changer, enabling health professionals to diagnose and treat patients remotely. Expanding telehealth services has made it easier for rural Americans to access medical care, especially during emergencies and throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Again, broadband technology has been vital to accessing this life-sustaining need and policies and companies are working to meet the challenge.
Rural healthcare professionals are using telehealth and tapping into electronic medical records to improve quality care delivery. At the same time, there is ample support for remote patient monitoring and digital health technologies as tools to bring physicians’ offices closer to peoples’ homes. The biggest concern among physicians on the frontlines of addressing patient needs is clinical training and financial assistance to keep community hospitals operating.
Rural Infrastructure and Remote Care
To boost economic opportunities in rural America, infrastructure investments are crucial. Initiatives like the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act allocate significant funding to improve roads, bridges, and public transportation in rural areas. These improvements enhance connectivity, create jobs, and stimulate economic growth.
The rise of remote work has opened up new possibilities for rural Americans. Rural communities can retain residents and attract talent while diversifying their economies by encouraging employers to offer remote work options and training programs to develop remote-friendly skills.
John Whyte, MD, chief medical officer of WebMD, has been partnering with companies like Walmart to improve quality care and make rural life sustainable: “We conducted a research survey with Walmart last year, and we surveyed actual rural physicians and compared their assessments of the quality of care for their rural patients versus urban physicians… We saw that physicians in rural communities rated the quality of care they provide lower quality than in urban communities. That really should be a wake-up call.”
Conversation and Collaboration Are Key to Making Progress
Companies like Arc Health, Exact Sciences, FINN Partners, GSK, Huma, LifePoint Health, Molecular Biologicals & PS Fertility, OffScrip Health, Verizon, Walgreens, Walmart, WebMD; and leaders from associations like AARP, Alliance for Health Policy, Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), CPSI; government agencies such as Health and Human Services and National Health Institute, and Academic institutions including Ohio State University and West Virginia University, have essential roles at the table. All are in conversation and addressing rural America’s challenges. They are doing everything from expanding broadband infrastructure, investing in rural job creation, supporting local farmers, and providing affordable goods and services to underserved areas.
Rural America knows what is best for rural America. We need to build programs and initiatives that empower individuals and their families. That leads to a sense of purpose in the community, which can stem the tide of many adverse health and social implications. Marrying purpose with economic empowerment is the real game-changer,” reflects Pritesh Gandhi, MD, Chief Community Health Officer at Walmart.
Walgreens has improved health access by expanding telemedicine, providing pharmacy services in rural communities, and working shoulder-to-shoulder with local health providers. WebMD has moved to upskill physicians and ensure they have access to breaking medical information. The private sector has the skill and scale to advance rural America’s technology, economic, and health challenges, contributing to the overall well-being of these communities.
In sharing ideas and possibilities, attendees show how to bridge the divide and ensure that rural Americans have the tools and resources to thrive. These practical solutions address problems and build a brighter future for rural America, where opportunities are abundant and quality of life is improved for all.