New partnership will boost Heritage College’s rural health impact

Nov 16, 2016

The Rural Prep project is a collaboration among many entities.

The Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine has worked with like-minded partners for many years to enhance health care training to better meet the needs of underserved rural areas. A grant from the U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration will now allow those involved in that effort to expand their networking, conduct more best practices research and share their findings more effectively.

HRSA’s Bureau of Health Workforce has awarded a five-year, $3.7 million cooperative agreement to the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine. The agreement funds a national collaborative for Rural Primary care Research, Education, and Practice, in which the Heritage College plays a major role.

The goals of Rural PREP are to conduct and sponsor research on health profession education; share research findings and best practices with rural health care educators and providers; and foster and engage with “communities of practice and research” ­– an area in which the Heritage College’s Department of Family Medicine and Office of Rural and Underserved Programs will take the lead.

Other collaborators include UW’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and the WWAMI (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho) Area Health Education Center.

Heading the project are Director Davis Patterson, Ph.D., a UW research assistant professor of family medicine and deputy director of WWAMI Rural Health Research Center, and Associate Director Randy Longenecker, M.D., a Heritage College professor of family medicine and assistant dean for rural and underserved programs. Longenecker, the National Rural Health Association’s 2014 Outstanding Educator, has much experience in training health care professionals so they will stay in rural areas.

Rural PREP, Longenecker says, logically extends work the Heritage College has been doing for years in partnership with UW and others, to unite care providers, patients, educators, students and others interested in rural health. Much of that effort has been associated with the Rural Training Track Collaborative, a nonprofit network of individuals and programs that support health profession education in rural areas, which Longenecker directs.

A community of practice and research, Longenecker explained, is “a group of folks who share a common vision, who have a common task, and have a means whereby they can relate and engage with one another over time.” To help foster such a community, the RTT Collaborative, through Rural PREP, will support its members to attend meetings of major organizations focused on rural health.

“We are (already) a substantial presence at the National Rural Health Association; we are a substantial presence at the Association of Family Medicine Residency Directors and the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine – all these entities that have a vested interest in rural medical education,” Longenecker said. The new HRSA agreement will allow that presence to expand and deepen, through Rural PREP’s presentation of “research design and dissemination studios” to these groups.

“We will plan and implement a half-day in their annual meetings, devoted to the design and dissemination of rural medical education research,” Longenecker said. The plan, he said, is to draw patients, health care workers and others into the process of figuring out what research to do, and sharing and interpreting the results.

A good chunk of what HRSA will be paying for is travel to bring community members together for brainstorming and information sharing.

“We can disseminate research in a journal, but whether somebody reads that, we don’t know,” Longenecker said. “But if they’re right across the table as we read it, and we’re talking about it, now we know they’ve heard about the research.” He said each design & dissemination studio will feature “something old, something now and something new” – published research, research currently in progress, and projects still in the planning stages. The HRSA agreement will also encourage health professions research by Heritage College faculty and students by providing support and venues for this research to be presented.

The HRSA agreement funds two research projects for each year of the grant – at least 10 in all. In the first year, one of the studies will seek to identify factors at medical schools nationwide that correlate with success in graduating physicians who practice long term in rural areas.

“We’re building on work that we’ve done in the past, where we look at what are the characteristics of these organizations that make them successful,” Patterson said. “First of all, which institutions are successful at producing rural physicians? And then, we can look at the characteristics of these institutions – what makes them successful at providing rural physicians? Do they have special relationships with rural communities? Are they based in rural areas? Are there aspects of their mission statement that make a difference?”

One institution that will look at this research closely is the Heritage College itself, which is eagerly seeking data on the effectiveness of programs designed to encourage more rural primary care doctors, such as its Rural and Underserved Scholars Pathways program.

With the first set of RUSP participants having graduated with D.O. degrees last May, Longenecker noted, the college can begin tracking how many RUSP graduates go on to practice in underserved areas over the long haul. “We might find that what we’re doing is working really well – we should do it more,” he said. “Or we might find we should tweak it to make it work even better.”