COVID-19 places one more burden on rural health care entities already challenged by workforce shortages, gaps in services, financial strain, and uninsured patients.
But, rural communities also have a track record of showing resilience, adapting evidence-based practices for their unique context, and innovating to overcome physical, geographic, and structural challenges that impact health care delivery and general well-being in rural areas.
How Rural Health Organizations Are Adapting Their Program Strategies is the first installment in the Georgia Health Policy Center’s series Finding Innovation and Resilience During the COVID-19 Pandemic.
“Changes to the way people are working have had an impact on every aspect of how rural health organizations operate internally and how they provide services to their patients and clients,” says Tanisa Foxworth, assistant project director, at the Georgia Health Policy Center (GHPC). “By listening to the voice of rural communities we can learn a lot about how communities are modifying their programs and leveraging opportunities for innovation and sustainability, even in these unprecedented times.”
As part of the center’s ongoing technical assistance work with the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy grantees, GHPC conducted a series of virtual peer learning opportunities. The series provided the space for small group discussions on challenges, early learnings, and adaptations to their rural health and public health program implementation strategies during the COVID-19 pandemic in six topic areas:
- Community Health Workers: Providing Social Support in a Virtual World
- Data Collection and Evaluation: Adjusting Approaches During a Pandemic
- How to Deliver Effective Virtual Trainings and Meetings
- Peer Support Services and Recovery Supports during a Pandemic
- Using Telehealth in New Ways to Meet Emerging Needs
- Working with Schools: Strategies to Support the Community
Across sessions some common themes emerged.
- While widespread connectivity barriers in many rural communities complicate the delivery of remote services and data collection efforts, communities are resourceful and are using creative ways to connect with those they serve. Some have provided hotspots for patients and clients in the parking lots of local retailers, government buildings (schools and libraries), and health care providers (clinics and hospitals), as well as rolling hotspots on school buses in order to ensure access to care for rural residents.
- The pandemic provides an opportunity for rural health entities to take advantage of expanded telehealth policies, test new methods for collecting data, and broaden engagement of nontraditional partners.
- Community health workers can provide social support and serve as a lifeline for connecting clients to needed resources (e.g., food pantries, COVID-19 testing, housing supports, and mental health resources) using both technology and old-school methods to stay connected during this time of social distancing.
- Meeting patients and clients “where they are” (e.g. food distribution centers) has been effective to connect with existing clients that cannot be reached using technology, while text messaging has been a good way to make initial contact for referrals to additional services.
Read about even more innovations in How Rural Health Organizations Are Adapting Their Program Strategies.