What does it take to launch and maintain an effort like National Rural Health Day? Why does the recognition matter and what difference can it make? We spoke with Teryl Eisinger, CEO of the National Organization of State Office of Rural Health (NOSORH), to get the answers to those questions and more. Read on to see what Nov. 18, 2021, is really all about.
There are 164 special days in November alone, from World Vegan Day to National Candy Day. It must be a huge commitment of time and resources for NOSORH to cut through the clutter. Can you talk about the organization’s commitment to this movement – and why you do it?
Well, thanks for asking and thanks for counting. I had no idea there were 164 days! For us, it's about cutting through the clutter, getting the facts out, and highlighting what is positive about living and working and making a difference in small towns.
We know that place matters. We know that quality care does happen in rural America. Yes, there is a huge challenge around the health of rural people – that's been well documented – but we also want to highlight the bright spots in rural health.
For instance, we know that when rural hospitals voluntarily engage in quality improvement initiatives, they really move the dime on improving outcomes for the patients. We also know that innovation is happening, especially the transition from volume to value. It's challenging for providers in rural communities to take that on, because a lot of the regulations are written for big places. But there's so much to be learned in rural America because it offers a small model, a smaller scale.
And really, there's no better place to practice for a professional who is mission minded. If a provider wants to practice in rural America, they get a broad scope of practice. Yes, it is a heavy lift, but over and over again, we hear about the rewards of caring for your neighbors.
This year marks the 11th anniversary of National Rural Health Day. What kind of growth have you seen in that time?
That first year we identified our key messages, which we still emphasize today, to educate people on what’s important to know about rural America. In the early years, when we would approach potential partners, the response would be, "Teryl, our advocacy points are: ‘Rural America is older, sicker and poorer.’ You want us to trash that?" But right from the start, we were committed to telling the story of what's good in our small communities and small hospitals.
We've had some challenges over the last 11 years, but it has really grown thanks to our partners. Last year, we're so thrilled that we had 69 million impressions on Twitter! We've seen federal agencies, state government, and community leaders across the nation just take it and go with it. That's been the beauty of it. It’s a great opportunity for anyone doing good work in rural places to shout out about their success and encourage others.
Let’s talk some more about your positive message. We hear a lot about the crisis in rural healthcare, and it’s a pretty downbeat narrative. But you all frame this effort in a very positive way: “The Power of Rural.” Tell me about that choice.
Well, to be honest, it's the culture of our organization. If you work in rural places, you have to believe that you can make a difference. You have to focus on what's good and what's positive and learn from those lessons.
Rural America has an abundance of committed community leaders, an abundance of beautiful places to protect and save, and millions of Americans make their home there. Yes, the resources are scarce, but an abundance mentality is part of our culture. We know that people want to hear those stories, and they are not told enough about the good care, the committed organizations and providers and the efforts to get our neighbors healthy. So we take one day a year – and try to build a movement throughout the year – to bring attention to that positive narrative. We want rural providers and community leaders to feel recognized and appreciated.
This isn’t just about institutions like hospitals and schools – you offer lots of ways for individuals to get involved. Why is that important?
Because grassroots leadership comes from individual people making a commitment to the work. If we only focus on healthcare facilities that won't get it done, in terms of helping people live healthier lives. We believe that rural grocery stores, and rural transportation services, and rural faith-based organizations can make the difference. And we know that there are people in all of those kinds of organizations who can work with their local health care organizations to grow health equity for 57 million people living in rural America.
Finally, what does success look like? If National Rural Health Day became second only to Thanksgiving on the November calendar, what kind of change do you think we might see in rural communities?
Well, I love the question, and I love imagining that possibility. Certainly, we're looking for a healthier rural America – 57 million people who can say that they're living healthy lives. That’s the first thing.
Next, we hope that officials and lawmakers will see the need for more flexible policies that allow rural communities to drive change on issues like healthcare workforce and broadband investment. We hope that lending institutions and federal agencies will think differently about their investments – making loans to grocery stores, for instance, so that they can address the food deserts of rural America. Those kinds of things go beyond the important needs of hospital infrastructure; they go deep into the roots of the community and the health of rural people.
Third, I think, is that hospital systems will learn more about the rural hospitals they own and manage. Big hospital systems are prevalent throughout rural America now, and it's a shift that we're all adjusting to. We want them to see that there is value in rural primary care and that beds in their urban hospitals are often filled also with rural people. Rural people and communities are a resource for those systems, and the systems need to recognize and honor the needs of rural citizens and the collaboration that's possible within a rural community.
And, finally, I want people to know that there are 50 State Offices of Rural Health and they're working really hard. They're neutral conveners, they're sources of information, and they are providers of technical assistance to support rural community leaders and others who are trying to make a difference in rural health.
To learn more about National Rural Health Day – including dozens of ways to get involved – please visit www.powerofrural.org.