Each year, National Rural Health Day offers an opportunity to “Celebrate the Power of Rural” by highlighting the unique health care challenges facing Rural America and the multitude of efforts underway to address those challenges. More than 57 million Americans – or one in five people – live in rural areas. But despite being a source of critical contributions (e.g., water, food, and energy) that sustain the rest of the nation, people living in rural communities are often forgotten. As a result, rural Americans experience social and economic disparities that negatively and disproportionately impact their health. But with the right tools, including research and data, a different reality is possible.
A Snapshot of the State of Rural Health
Research shows that, compared to their urban counterparts, rural Americans have a lower median income, are less likely to have postsecondary education, and are less likely to have access to both primary and specialty care physicians. In fact, a majority (68%) of shortages in qualified health care providers occur in rural or frontier areas. At the same time, rural Americans are more likely to be uninsured, have to travel long distances for health care services, and experience the digital divide – all of which create barriers to seeking care. The combination of these factors has resulted in poorer health outcomes for this population, which experiences higher rates of some of the leading causes of death in the U.S., including heart disease, cancer, stroke, and unintentional injury such as opioid overdose. For people of color, who account for 20% of those living in rural areas, these outcomes are even worse.
While the inequities between rural and urban health are clear, what remains to be determined is how to go beyond just naming disparities and create solutions that account for both individual and social determinants of health. To do this, we need more research into how environment, lifestyle, and genes converge to impact health.
Collecting Data to Create Solutions for All of Us
Better data is an important first step toward better evidence-based interventions; ones that consider the multiple dimensions of health. But obtaining, using, and sharing data continues to be a struggle.
NACCHO’s 2019 National Profile of Local Health Departments found that nearly 75% of rural local health departments did not participate in any research activities. While this finding is undoubtedly the result of workforce and funding shortages, we must close the gap, and urgently. That’s where the All of Us Research Program comes in.
The mission of the All of Us Research Program is simple: create the country’s most diverse health research database. To do this, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is asking one million people to lead the way to provide the types of information that can help researchers learn how our biology, lifestyle, and environment affect health.
The program takes into account factors like where you live, what you do, and your family health history, with the ultimate goal of finding health care solutions that meet the needs people of different backgrounds, ages, or regions..
All of Us recognizes that rural communities not only face disproportionate health obstacles and risks but that they are often left out of the very research into treatments and therapies that could help solve those problems. By engaging participants in rural areas, the program will increase available data on rural populations which approved researchers can then use to conduct studies, identify patterns and trends, and inform interventions that create healthier rural communities – and in turn, a healthier America.
The Power of Rural Lies in the Power of Health
From agriculture to manufacturing to outdoor recreation (e.g., fishing and hunting), r ural America produces resources and contributes to activities that benefit the entire country. Ten percent of the nation’s gross domestic product is produced in non-metropolitan areas. This means that the health of our rural population has implications not just for the people living and working in those communities, but for all of us, everywhere. We need our rural communities to be healthy so that we all can be healthy.
This is why NACCHO, as well as organizations such as the National Rural Health Association (NRHA), are partnering with the All of Us Research Program. We see, through the work and stories of our members, how healthier people and environments can transform the landscape of a community. Thus, we believe that with sufficient health research in rural areas, the public health and health care fields will gain the data and insights needed to establish a clearer picture of the state of rural health, as well as a clearer vision for improving health in rural communities.
As we continue our partnership with All of Us, NACCHO and NRHA need the support and engagement of people like you. If you’re ready to join us in championing the All of Us Research Program in your communities, check out this webpage to access downloadable resources in English and Spanish that will help you learn more about the program and promote it to the people you serve on a daily basis.
Together, we can create a healthier future and maximize the power of rural communities to survive and thrive.