The Lytle, Texas, Community Health Center lab room in 2017. The new Center for Economic Analysis for Rural Health at the University of Kentucky will examine ways to help rural health clinics remain open and will explore economic issues related to rural healthcare. (USDA Photo by Lance Cheung)

A newly formed research and training center at the University of Kentucky will study the economic impact of health care in rural areas and provide training for rural leaders based on what they find.

The Center for Economic Analysis for Rural Health, located at the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, will be a national center for the economic impact of rural health issues, said Alison Davis, an agriculture economics professor and director of the center.

The center will also work to help identify successes and strategies to help rural health centers remain open.

“Our mission is to be able to provide tools and training to hospitals, elected officials, economic development professionals, community leaders, etc., to support decision-making that promotes access to healthcare and that strengthens local economies,” Davis said.

Part of the center’s work will be traditional economic impact analysis, she said, but part of it will also be to look at more complex research issues.

Alison Davis, Executive Director of the Center for Economic Analysis for Rural Health

Some of the issues the center will study are the impact of emergency medical services in smaller rural communities, what specialty medical services are needed when a rural hospital closes, and what kinds of community characteristics rural areas at risk of losing their hospitals share, she said.

Funded through the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy at the Health Resources and Services Administration, the new program will receive a three-year renewable grant and will be partnering with Oklahoma State University, which previously housed the National Rural Health Works program.

The program will be housed in the  Community Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky (CEDIK), which has done similar work on the state level. The new center will have a nationwide reach, Davis said.

“CEDIK is a perfect fit for this new center, because we are an integrated research and outreach center designed to explore the relationship between health access and local economic development,” she said. “The purpose of [the Center for Economic Analysis for Rural Health] is to increase public and stakeholder awareness of the economic impacts of rural health care sectors on rural, state and national economies, as well as the relationship between community economic development and the health outcomes of rural residents. The hope is we will have a system of quality care in our rural places. We will provide tools to help providers talk about the economic importance of the local hospital or other medical services to their local community.”

According to the University of Kentucky, the center will have three objectives:

  • Responding to pressing issues facing rural communities that are identified through the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy, the center’s advisory council and other partners.
  • Creating timely, relevant and useful research-based tools that health care leaders, elected officials, economic development professionals and community leaders can use to sustain their rural health economy.
  • And providing face-to-face and online trainings and workshops, as well as widely disseminate resources nationally through its advisory council, rural health conferences and rural health online repositories.

Additionally, the center will be staffed with faculty and other staff members from both the University of Kentucky and Oklahoma State University. A national advisory committee will include representatives from state offices of Rural Health, the North Central Regional Center for Rural Development, and Regional Rural Development Centers around the country, Cooperative Extension faculty from other land-grant universities, and the National Cooperative of Health Networks Association.

Nationally, more than 110 rural hospitals have closed in the past decade, creating a health care crisis in rural areas. The closures affect health care, economic development, and quality of life.

Davis said hospitals are often overlooked as an economic development entity. In rural towns with a hospital, health care is often the second largest employer behind the school district. Because of that, when a hospital closes, the local economy suffers.

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