For those of us fortunate enough to be involved in rural health care, the third Thursday of November is a special time to pause, reflect and look forward. Designated as National Rural Health Day in 2011, this particular Thursday has served as an important moment to honor the contributions of rural health care workers, including the 14,000-plus ECU Health and Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University team members who care for eastern North Carolina.
You don’t have to look far to see the impact of rural health care. All around us are doctors, nurses, allied health professionals, professors, students and others who make high-quality health care possible here in eastern North Carolina. Today is a day to celebrate them and their tireless dedication to serving a region of 1.4 million people.
ECU Health’s vision to become the national model for rural academic health care is necessitated by the shared challenges rural communities across America face. An estimated 62 million people call rural America home, and they all experience health care in similar ways: fewer resources, higher burdens of diseases like diabetes and heart disease, difficulty accessing care and a higher number of under and uninsured people when compared to urban communities. Eastern North Carolina is no different.
These are undoubtedly complex challenges, but they can be solved through innovation and ingenuity. For example, the American Association of Medical Colleges estimates a shortage of more than 124,000 physicians by 2034, a reality that will disproportionately impact rural communities. We can anticipate the impending shortage, understand the disproportionate impact it will have on our communities and utilize the unique resources available at our academic health system to address these challenges.
Studies show that family medicine residents who spent 50% or more of their training time in rural settings were at least five times more likely than residents with no rural training to practice in a rural setting. Brody and ECU Health together launched the Rural Family Medicine Residency program in 2021, and the results are immediately evident with multiple residents already committed to continue practicing in one of ECU Health’s rural family medicine clinics.
There are countless other examples like the Rural Family Medicine Residency program that showcase the value of an academic and health care delivery system. When we created ECU Health, the vision was to create a premier academic health care enterprise that could serve as a national model for other rural health systems to learn from. We are on our way to realizing that vision, and I am proud of our work so far. Our progress would not be possible without the incredible team members who have dedicated their careers to improving the lives of others.
I encourage our community members to thank a health care worker this week. Our lives are better because they choose to serve here in rural eastern North Carolina.