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UW Population Health Institute: Improving Rural Health

Seeking answers for post-COVID recovery

Community Resilience and Response Task Force identifies ways to improve rural health

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a higher toll on residents of rural Wisconsin, following years of reduced health services for those regions. The Community Resilience and Response Task Force was formed in a collaboration among the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, UW-Extension and the Wisconsin Governor’s Office. The task force collects and analyzes data, identifies gaps in policy and service and recommends ways to create equitable health care options for rural residents.

Charting declining access in rural areas

In Wisconsin, more than one of every four residents lives in a rural area, and access to health care has been diminishing, according to the task force’s 50-page report. Although some of the state’s rural hospitals have earned high marks for their quality of care, rural residents have less access to primary care physicians, dentists and mental health professionals. A recent study found that 16% of Wisconsin’s rural hospitals are vulnerable to closure. Because of limited access and delays in diagnosis and treatment, hospitalization and death rates are commonly higher. The task force report, completed in December 2020, calls for steps that include expanding telehealth services and community health workers; offering mobile reproductive health services and setting up health clinics in retail stores; and tailoring health care to patients’ culture, beliefs and language skills. It also examines long-term economic and social disparities such as lack of access to good jobs, education and housing.

Working toward equal health care for all

“Every Wisconsinite deserves a fair opportunity to be healthy. Our recovery from the pandemic will only be effective if it addresses the inequities that people faced before the impact of COVID-19,” the report says. It identifies six areas where changes are needed in order to create a more equitable outcome for the state’s rural residents:

  • Broadband infrastructure
  • Food systems and agriculture
  • Health care access
  • Housing stability
  • Mental health and connectedness
  • Job security and stable employment

Read the full report.