Tip Sheets

Wealth of ideas for covering rural health issues from AHCJ conference

By Susan Heavey

There’s a lot to unpack from day-long conferences and AHCJ’s Rural Health Journalism Workshop this summer was no exception. About one dozen presenters offered their expertise on everything from the impact of cultural barriers on mental health to luring doctors to work in sparsely populated areas.

For those already covering rural health, it provided some new angles and expertise for future stories. For reporters new to the beat, the workshop provided a wide view of issues particular to the health of those living outside urban America.

Here are some takeaways for journalists from the workshop’s panelists and key experts:

  • Culture: Hit the pavement, walk the town, visit clinics –knowing your community or the one you are covering is a key first step to any health story on larger issues. Talk to many different people and let them know you are interested in their community and the health care there, not just a story. Earning trust and understanding is key, as is being simple, clear and direct with people and potential interviewees. Build contacts, slow down.

  • Mental Health: Culture and community play a large role in recognizing and seeking treatment for a range of mental health issues, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Military veterans often return to or settle in rural areas, and are a unique population with important mental health needs. People in rural areas tend to wait longer before seeking care.

  • Image by Let Ideas Compete via Flickr.

    Hospitals: The financial health of rural hospitals is a key coverage area given the growing trend of hospital closures in less populated areas of the country. They face numerous challenges, including serving a greater proportion of elderly patients, geographic isolation and transportation issues, especially in severe weather. Facility closures can devastate a community, stripping it of any inpatient hospital services and creating a ripple effect in jobs, schools and local taxes that can leave towns on life support.

  • Access and providers: Part of the issue with providing the access to health care is not just building and financing the facilities, but also luring the talent. Family medicine is often the basis for rural health care, but funding and reimbursement issues can make it difficult to get family physicians to practice in remote areas. Nontransferable residency slots and more training could help.

  • Resources:  Two starting points offered by Oklahoma State University’s rural research director Denna Wheeler: the National Rural Health Association and the Rural Health Information Hub, two groups where reporters can get a good top line of current issues. The National Organization of State Offices of Rural Health is also a good source of information, especially for local reporters. It offers one-stop shopping for links to each state’s rural health office, including contact information. Need data? Rural Health Research Gateway and the Rural Policy Research Institute are two starting points.

The workshop has already generated some stories for attendees, including The Oklahoman’s Jaclyn Cosgrove, who later wrote about treating mental health in youth in Oklahoma as well as access to maternity care.

For a flavor of the discussions at the conference – and the stories it generated – search for #ruralhealth15 on Twitter.

Susan Heavey (@susanheavey) is AHCJ’s topic leader covering health disparities and the social determinants of health care. She can be reached at determinants@healthjournalism.org.