The Role of Public Health in Rural Communities

For many across the United States, there’s an understated draw to living in a rural area. Individuals raised in these communities appreciate the roots from which they grew, whether in a small-town environment or living on a farm. Others desire to escape urban areas.

However, living in a rural area isn’t always easy — especially regarding healthcare. Community members face challenges such as access to quality care and a general shortage of healthcare providers. They may have to travel hours to visit with a specialist, which then deters individuals from following through with provider recommendations.

This is where public health professionals can step in and provide assistance. While they may not fully solve all the issues facing rural communities, they can certainly impact the health and wellness of community members. Graduates of Eastern Washington University’s online Master of Public Health (MPH) program are equipped to address healthcare challenges in rural communities and increase access to care.

Unique Healthcare Needs of Rural Communities

Rural communities face a variety of health challenges, such as higher rates of poverty, limited access to transportation and reduced availability of healthy food options. These factors contribute to increased rates of chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.

Additionally, rural residents may experience higher rates of mental health issues, substance abuse and suicide risk. Addressing these unique needs requires targeted public health interventions and increased support for local healthcare systems.

Differences in Public Health Approaches in Rural Areas

In rural communities, public health efforts must be tailored to address the unique challenges mentioned above. Public health specialists working in rural areas must develop innovative strategies and leverage local resources in order to ensure residents receive the care and support they need.

For example, public health specialists can provide valuable services to rural communities, including counseling, healthcare navigation, community education, advocacy, language translation services and mental health interventions. They can also promote health equity by addressing social determinants of health (SDOH), which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines as:

  • Genetics
  • Behavior
  • Environmental and physical influences
  • Medical Care
  • Social Factors

These categories encompass numerous factors, such as living conditions/community environment, access to healthcare, the ability to secure (and maintain) employment and concerns about food security.

Identifying Issues Faced by Rural Populations

One of the most significant barriers to serving rural populations is identifying where gaps exist. Public health specialists can work closely with community members, local organizations and healthcare providers to identify and address the unique health needs of these populations.

This may involve conducting community health assessments, collecting data on health disparities and engaging in community-based participatory research. By partnering with local stakeholders, public health specialists can develop targeted interventions and policies to improve health outcomes in rural areas.

Impact of Eastern Washington University’s MPH Graduates

Public health plays an essential role in improving the health outcomes and quality of life in rural communities. With a solid educational foundation, these professionals have an opportunity to make a lasting impact on the health and well-being of rural residents.

Eastern Washington University’s MPH online program provides that foundation. Graduates are well prepared to address the unique challenges faced by rural populations. The curriculum includes the following courses:

  • Health Policy and Law. Students come to understand the importance of private and public healthcare entities such as Medicare, Medicaid, the Department of Defense, the Veterans Administration and Indian Health Services. They are given the tools to influence future policy decisions.
  • S. Health Systems. The U.S. healthcare industry encompasses different delivery models and standards that impact population health. Students will learn about key elements such as per capita costs and experience of care.
  • Health Equity and Advocacy. This course focuses on the social determinants of health (SDOH) affecting rural communities on a local, regional, national and global level. Per the course description, “Attention to how race, class, power, wealth, structural bias, racism, and sexism undermine health is incorporated as a personal exploration of cultural competence.”

These courses represent just a few of the core classes designed to prepare students to meet the complex challenges faced by rural populations through coursework that emphasizes clinical research, evidence-based practice and more. Through their future contributions, graduates will help reduce health disparities, promote health equity and improve the overall well-being and health literacy of rural residents.

Learn more about Eastern Washington University’s online Master of Public Health program.

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