To achieve health equity, health professionals must include and prioritize the experiences of those living in rural communities. More than one in six people live in rural America, a testament to the vital role rural communities play in our nation’s economy, infrastructure and culture. As many rural hospitals across the country struggle to remain open, the opioid crisis continues and the life expectancy gap between rural and urban Americans widens, effective and collaborative solutions are necessary to meet the diverse needs of this large population.
When pursuing successful community engagement, it is important to consider the following factors:
- Rural America is not a Monolith:
Rural communities are ethnically, racially, politically and economically diverse. In fact, one in four individuals residing in rural America is a person of color. Engagement reflecting the diversity present within rural America supports the unique needs of diverse rural communities, leading to more effective policies that foster health equity.
- Unite through Direct Collaboration:
Empowering communities in rural America is most effective when engagement is direct and collaborative. Thoughtful engagement cultivates trust and creates opportunities for impactful conversations addressing barriers to care, privacy concerns and social stigma surrounding sexual and mental health. Effective collaboration requires efforts that unite diverse rural stakeholders – including health care providers, community leaders and policymakers – to collectively identify challenges, develop initiatives and implement solutions resulting in lasting change.
- Inclusive Messaging Builds Bridges:
Thoughtful messaging empowers community engagement. Inclusive communication utilizes terminology and language familiar and respectful of every rural community and involves actively listening to rural residents, understanding their unique needs and perspectives, and ensuring their voices are heard in decision-making processes. This approach strengthens relationships and creates an environment for meaningful engagement.
- Impact of the Rural Voice:
Rural stakeholders hold significant influence within the political landscape, creating opportunity to play a pivotal role in the advocacy for, and advancement of, systemic changes that promote health equity. By engaging with policymakers, rural stakeholders and advocacy groups, we can raise public awareness of the unique challenges rural communities face, with the aim of implementing necessary policy reforms.
- Embrace Innovative Partnerships:
To address rural health disparities, we must embrace innovative approaches that leverage technology, interdisciplinary collaboration and creative solutions. By encouraging partnerships between health care providers, pharma and biotech companies, research institutions and community organizations, we can develop scalable and sustainable interventions.
Collaborative approaches leveraging stakeholder influence and innovative solutions can serve as powerful drivers for health equity reform. Strategies derived from this framework propel vital initiatives that reduce health disparities and yield long-term benefits for all Americans by fostering a more inclusive environment for a strengthened and healthy nation.