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Workshop explores special health needs of rural residents Date: 06/09/10

Speakers' presentations and tip sheets are available for AHCJ members.

Dennis Berens, president of the National Rural Health Association, called media coverage of health reform a failure – but not the only failure in framing the issue for the public.

Kansas psychiatrist Roy Menninger said barriers to mental health services in rural have changed little over the past three decades, with serious consequences.

And while a growing population of seniors drawing on more and more health resources, soaring childhood obesity rates are another drain in the often impoverished areas, experts on aging and childhood said.

Those were some of the highlights of Rural Health Journalism Workshop 2010 in Kansas City, Mo., on June 4. More than 50 people attended the event, part of the Association of Health Care Journalists' Midwest Health Journalism Program.

With 15 speakers and other topics including health disparities and oral health, attendees of the free, daylong event left with story ideas and new resources to enhance their reporting.

Berens, a former publisher of a small Nebraska newspaper, said "you let us down," talking about the media and health reform. Instead, the media depended too much on press releases. "We need journalism civic literacy and health literacy taught to the citizenry."

He said too often, news sources weren't vetted properly.

A kickoff panel took a broad look at rural residents and rural health, with the startling conclusion from Rex Campbell, rural sociology professor emeritus of the University of Missour: "Traditional rural America is dead!"

That refers to the classic rural stereotypes: isolated communities where everyone knew everyone else, with gardens and animals a common sight at most homes and a largely homogeneous population. The factors that eroded that now-extinct setting: improved transportation, communications and utilities, plus changes in agriculture, no longer dominated by small family farms.

Jane Bolin, director of the Southwest Rural Health Research Center at the Texas A&M Health Science Center, put emphasis on place and health. Given the wide range of rural locations, there is an equally wide range of cultures, she said, and understanding the "special contextual features and social fabric of rural Americans is central to understanding their mental, behavioral and physical health."

Journalists from print, broadcast and online media outlets, plus a freelance contingent, heard from Christopher Kelly, University of Nebraska at Omaha assistant professor of the Department of Gerontology, and Amy Brock-Martin, deputy director of the South Carolina Rural Health Research Center, about the vulnerable populations of seniors and children.

Rosemary McKenzie, minority health liaison and program services manager for National Rural Health Association; and Timothy McBride, professor and associate dean for public health at Washington University's Brown School, gave primers on health disparities.

Emily Shortridge of the Walsh Center for Rural Health Analysis and Jason Wesco, chief operating officer, Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas, gave both broad and specific story ideas about oral health.

Sponsors included The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; The Commonwealth Fund; and foundations supporting the Midwest Health Journalism Program: The Kansas Health Foundation; The Sunflower Foundation; The United Methodist Health Ministry Fund; REACH Healthcare Foundation; Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City; Missouri Foundation for Health.