East Tennessee State University celebrated the announcement of its Center for Rural Health Research on July 16. Pictured at the event with Tennessee Governor Bill Lee are leaders from state and local government, Ballad Health and East Tennessee State University.

A new rural health research center with a multi-million-dollar annual budget will focus on breaking the cycle of inter-generational behavior that contributes to poor health.

The Center for Rural Health Research will be housed at the College of Public Health at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, said the dean of the college, Randy Wykoff.

“We are increasingly recognizing that one of the greatest health challenges for our region – and our nation – is to interrupt the inter-generational cycles of poor health, lack of education and persistent poverty,” Wykoff said. “What all of these have in common is the inter-generational cycle. We’ve got to be bold. We’ve got to figure out what we need to do to break the cycle.”

Randall Wycoff, dean of the College of Public Health at East Tennessee State University, speaks at the center’s opening ceremony.

One of the first things Wykoff said he’ll focus on is perinatal care – the period just before and after childbirth. Emphasizing this period will empower women to provide the best care they can to protect their babies from harm, he said.

He also hopes to look at how to get healthcare to those in rural areas.

“We’ll be looking at healthcare delivery as well,” he said. “It is about our transportation systems? Do we need mobile services? Should we be focusing on internet and phone-based services? How do we make sure everybody gets better care, and how do we train our providers to work within those delivery systems?”

Starting with a focus on what is already known about healthcare in rural areas and then figuring out what the unanswered questions are, Wykoff hopes to be able help not just those in rural eastern Tennessee, but the state, and possibly the country. A mandate from Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, Wykoff said, was to address rural health issues for the entire state, but to find solutions that could benefit other states as well.

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee speaks at the center’s opening ceremony.

Lee promised a first-year grant of $1.5 million for the center, as well as $750,000 annually for the center’s ongoing operations, a pledge that has already passed the Tennessee Legislature. Ballad Health, a regional health care system serving 29 counties in northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia, northwest North Carolina and southeast Kentucky, has also pledged its support in the form of $15 million over the next 10 years. The gift is the largest in ETSU history.

“In order for Tennessee to truly lead the nation, we must ensure we help all Tennesseans succeed, particularly in our rural areas,” Lee said in a press release. “One way to help our rural areas is to improve the health outcomes in these areas. Ballad Health and ETSU are leading in this effort, and [the establishment of the Center for Rural Health Research] … reflects the state’s commitment to work with them to find solutions.”

Lee, a Republican, has focused on rural issues since assuming office in January 2019.

The center will also work to become a source for policymakers – providing the data from which those in government and other policy making organizations can make decisions to help improve the health of those in rural and nonurban communities.

First, Wykoff said, the center will focus on building out its team to ensure the best of the best are in place.

“I’m not interested in counting things right now, I’m interested in making a different in rural America and Appalachia,” he said. “We want to move relatively quickly to get staff in place and get some of the best thinkers and researchers in place. I plan on us being fully staffed in six months and fully up and running in nine to 12 months.”

Wykoff said the center’s schedule may be affected by academic schedules, as the school year has started and it may be difficult to find people willing to take on the new opportunities in the middle of the school year.

ETSU College of Public Health, where the center is based and Wykoff is dean, is the first accredited public health college in Tennessee and is one of the top 10 public health colleges in the southeast. US News and World Report ranks the school among the top third of public health programs across the country. Additionally, ETSU’s Quillen College of Medicine is one of the top schools in the country for producing physicians in rural America.

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