West Virginia Rural Health Conference topics included health equity, diversity


LEWISBURG, WV (LOOTPRESS) – In a presentation titled “Health Equity, Poverty and Rural Resilience,” Michael Meit summed up a recurrent theme across the more than 30 sessions that made up the West Virginia Rural Health Association’s (WVRHA) 29th annual conference, hosted virtually from the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine (WVSOM) campus.

“I believe poverty is the major underlying factor that sets up our rural regions for a lot of the challenges we face,” said Meit, who serves as director of research and programs for East Tennessee State University’s Center for Rural Health Research.

Meit pointed out, however, that necessity breeds invention and that rural communities often find ways to overcome such difficulties. As an example, he cited eight counties in eastern Kentucky that were among the 10 U.S. counties with the steepest declines in drug overdose death rates between the periods of 2008-12 and 2013-17. Meit said the counties benefited from better access to treatment, recovery initiatives, harm-reduction programs and an emphasis on prevention and education, among other factors.

“We’ve got challenges in our region, but they are not challenges that define our region,” he said. “If you live in a resource-constrained community, you come up with solutions nobody else has thought of. When we talk about innovation, everyone talks about places like the Silicon Valley or Austin, Texas. I think our innovation hubs are our rural communities that have figured out how to solve problems without throwing money at them.”

The theme of this year’s West Virginia Rural Health Conference was “Reimagining Rural Health: Responding to Unprecedented Challenges.” A total of 238 health professionals attended the Oct. 20-22 conference, which was livestreamed from the WVSOM campus and from some presenters’ remote locations.

Courtney Hereford, MSPH, MSW, research director for WVSOM’s Center for Rural and Community Health (CRCH) and a WVRHA board member, chaired the conference committee. She said she was particularly proud of the conference’s focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, which she noted is integral to WVSOM’s and the WVRHA’s missions to serve across the rural health spectrum. That focus was one of four educational tracks attendees could choose from.

“The conference is the state’s largest convening of those invested in improving rural health, and this year’s content, from speakers to student podium and poster presentations, was an exceptional display of our state’s innovative response to rural health priorities,” Hereford said.

Opening the three-day conference, James W. Nemitz, Ph.D., WVSOM’s president, introduced attendees to the medical school’s resources and points of pride, noting that WVSOM has been acknowledged as the leader in rural physician placement in West Virginia, in the Appalachian region and in the U.S.

The keynote presenter was Camara Phyllis Jones, M.D., Ph.D., MPH, an epidemiologist and former American Public Health Association president who has studied the effects of racism and other social inequalities on health and well-being. In her presentation, “Achieving Health Equity: Tools for Naming Racism and Moving to Action,” Jones used several visual allegories to illustrate the importance of battling public health inequities. She said jurisdictions at local, county and state levels in 38 of the 50 states have formally declared that racism is a public health crisis.

Winners of 2021 West Virginia Rural Health Awards were announced during the conference. WVSOM second-year student Matthew Parsley received the Outstanding Rural Health Student Award. The Lewisburg-based, WVSOM-affiliated Robert C. Byrd Clinic received the Excellence in Rural Health Organization Award.

As in the past, virtual poster and podium presentations were part of the annual conference, including 37 posters by WVSOM students, faculty and staff. Poster of the Year was awarded to “Appropriate Clinical Strategies for Working With the ​Unique Needs of Patients Who Practice Islam,” by WVSOM second-year students Saniya Ahmed, Zoe Harold, Abeera Naeem, Nicole Newman, Vivian Shiffler and Isabelle Sinitsa, with clinical sciences faculty members Gretchen Lovett, Ph.D., and Andrea Nazar, D.O.

Rich Sutphin, MPH, executive director of the West Virginia Rural Health Association, said the conference was successful in helping health professionals share strategies for making West Virginia a healthier place to live.

“I’m hoping folks learned some new ideas that they can implement in their communities to improve community and rural health. It’s not something one person can do. It’s a team sport. The only way we’re going to improve is to work together,” he said.

The 2022 conference will also be hosted at WVSOM.

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