Wisconsin Highlights ‘Power Of Rural’ On National Rural Health Day

BMaddie Burakoff Wisconsin

PUBLISHED 5:17 PM ET Nov. 19, 2020

MILWAUKEE — To say health care providers have been working hard this year would be an incredible understatement. As COVID-19 has touched communities all across Wisconsin, providers — including those in rural areas, which already face their own unique challenges — have been taking on huge burdens to combat the pandemic.

Thursday offered a reason to step back and highlight some of their efforts: Nov. 19 marked National Rural Health Day in the U.S., the 10th annual celebration for health care workers across the country. 

“Rural health care providers continue, as they always have, to do excellent work,” says Kevin Jacobson, program manager for the Wisconsin Office of Rural Health. “And this year, the challenges are more significant than in a regular year. Besides the problems of access and resources, there’s COVID on top of it.” 

Around a quarter of all Wisconsinites, and 57 million people across the country, live in rural communities, the Office of Rural Health reports. Many rural residents face extra challenges in seeking out health care, Jacobson says — like living miles and miles from the nearest clinic, or seeing shortages of physicians and EMTs in their regions.

Rural Health Day is a chance to recognize “there is work to be done,” but also “plenty to celebrate” in these unique areas, as the national website states.

Of course, the celebration looks a little different in this pandemic year, Jacobson says. In the past, communities have held in-person Rural Health Day events like open houses and awards ceremonies; this time around, much of the activity has moved online, with callouts and activities on social media.

REACH Waushara encouraged Wisconsinites to track their steps on Thursday, with the goal of collectively logging 1,379 miles — enough to travel around the perimeter of the state. And Grant Regional Health Center in Lancaster shared testimonials from its staffers, in addition to sending out gift baskets for its first responder partners. 

“The biggest benefit of receiving care in a rural hospital is patients are our family, friends and neighbors,” one nurse wrote in her testimonial. “We are close by and can help in so many ways.”

                                                            

Another organization got a particular shoutout this year: Kids Health Vista, a Wisconsin Dells-based nonprofit that funds children’s healthcare projects, was recognized as a “Community Star” by the National Organization of State Offices of Rural Health. 

Jacobson says the Wisconsin office, which nominated Kids Health Vista for the award, was impressed with their efforts last year to donate pediatric equipment to rural EMS providers.

Jack Hart, the president of Kids Health Vista, says when the group was getting started just last year, they heard from rural EMS providers that many ambulances didn’t have the proper equipment to treat infants and small children. Even simple items like backboards and breathing tubes in the right sizes for tiny bodies could mean the difference between life and death, he says.

“You’d be pretty surprised if you had a kid, and you called an EMS unit, and found out that they weren’t equipped to handle an infant,” Hart says. “That was a real shocker to us, to find out how much need there is for that type of thing.”

Through the group’s fundraising efforts, including their first annual gala event, they were able to buy 100 pediatric equipment kits and hand them out to providers. 

Hart says it was “really exciting” to pass the kits off to the EMS workers who needed them, but also emphasizes that the work isn’t done: There’s probably a need for another 300 kits, he says, so fundraising for that equipment remains a priority for Kids Health Vista.

He also stresses that, while this year’s award is appreciated, it’s not the reason he and his team got involved. Hart, a retired professor, doesn’t actually have a background in healthcare: It’s his involvement with a Corvette enthusiast club that first led him to Cars Curing Kids, a Madison-based group for children’s healthcare research. 

Seeing that gaps in pediatric care stretched far beyond Madison, Hart says he and his partners were inspired to take their efforts statewide with Kids Health Vista.

“We all see the need,” Hart says. “To find out the lack of medical services that are available to young people, you know, small children and infants, that's just not acceptable. And so all of us have been involved in trying to help that out in Wisconsin.”

For his part, Hart hopes the Rural Health Day recognition helps bring extra awareness to their efforts, even as they’ve had to cancel this year’s gala and fight to keep momentum since the pandemic hit.

There are plenty of other factors for rural health that could also use some support, Jacobson says, from improving health care access to, right now, making sure that everyone is taking COVID-19 precautions seriously. Expanding broadband access is also an important issue, especially as telemedicine continues to grow, says Elizabeth DiNovella, communications coordinator for the Wisconsin Office of Rural Health.

In the midst of a tough year, though, DiNovella says she’s seen “no shortage of amazing stories” — like groups in Marathon County coming together to provide coronavirus information to Latino and Hmong communities.

“Health care workers are working really hard. There's great collaborations happening,” DiNovella says. “And so, it's still an opportunity to stop and think about all the good work that happens in rural health in Wisconsin.