One in five North Carolinians, almost 2.2 million people, live in 60 rural counties. Rural North Carolina has a rich cultural and industrial heritage, people who are self-reliant and innovative, and a strong sense of community. But people from rural communities are less likely to have access to health services, are more likely to engage in risky health behaviors and have a higher mortality rate on average than North Carolinians living in non-rural areas.
On Monday, August 18, 2014, the North Carolina Institute of MedicineTask Force on Rural Health (Task Force) released its first comprehensive North Carolina Rural Health Action Plan, which sets forth recommendations to reduce these health disparities and increase economic stability across our state’s rural communities. As a member of the Task Force, the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust played a large role in developing the Action Plan, which sets forth specific, measureable steps to strengthen North Carolina’s rural communities.
“This is a strong, action-oriented plan that ties health improvement to the long-term vitality of these rural communities,” said Allen Smart, Vice President of Programs, Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust. “There are some clear next steps outlined in the report, and we are calling on the public and private sectors to continue working closely with rural residents and communities to tackle these problems head-on.”
The report outlines six strategies to improve health care in the state’s rural communities. The strategies range from increasing jobs and economic security, to improving educational outcomes, to offering more behavioral health services, to increasing recruitment and retention of key health professionals. A critical component of the Action Plan is collaboration among the General Assembly, health care and business leaders, and local communities.
Dr. Adam Zolotor, MD, DrPH, Interim President and CEO, North Carolina Institute of Medicine, took the lead on drafting the report. For the first time, and the Trust’s urging, the Task Force went to local communities to learn from the experts – those who call rural North Carolina home – to gather critical input used in developing the action plan.
“Rural North Carolina faces unique challenges that must be addressed to improve health outcomes,” said Dr. Zolotor. “Improving health outcomes in rural North Carolina is more than simply bringing doctors and hospitals to less populated areas. It’s about strengthening economic opportunities, investing in education and ensuring that rural North Carolinians are equipped with the resources they need to flourish. It will require hard work and collaboration, but with the right plan and tools in place, we will see results.”
North Carolina’s health disparities go far beyond health care. In recent years, the gap between North Carolina’s rural and urban communities has continued to widen, in part because of the struggling manufacturing and agricultural industries. More rural residents live below the poverty line, which is directly tied to poor health.
The Trust is committed to making measureable change in some of our state’s most rural communities, and the Action Plan outlines critical steps we must take to do that. With close collaboration between funders, health care and business leaders, government, nonprofits and rural residents, the strategies in the Action Plan will help strengthen our state’s rural communities, and in turn, the state as a whole.