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Rural Resiliency Key to Improving Virginia Health Inequities


Friday, November 19, 2021   

CORRECTION: The presentation took place at the Rural Health Voice Conference hosted by the Virginia Rural Health Association. The article incorrectly stated the name. (Nov. 21, 2021, 2:03 pm)

RICHMOND, Va. -- Thursday was National Rural Health Day, and presenters at the Rural Health Voice conference outlined health and racial disparities in rural regions, but also emphasized their strengths.

Michael Meit, director of research and programs in the Center for Rural Health Research at East Tennessee State University, pointed out poverty underpins inequities in regions like Appalachian Virginia. He thinks the media sometimes paints negative pictures when reporting on these gaps, which might lead business leaders to back away from investing there.

"The phrase that is often used in describing our rural communities, and I think it's great for advocacy, but it's terrible for bringing in investment, is 'older, poorer and sicker,'" Meit observed. "And, frankly, we need to get away from that. And we need to start talking about assets in our rural communities. They are creative, they are hard-working."

He noted his center conducted a study on the positive aspects of rural America. It found a strong sense of community, solid support networks and a wealth of innovation and creativity in solving their own problems. The conference was hosted by the Virginia Rural Health Association.

Despite rural resiliency, Meit pointed out the region has not seen health improvements over time like the rest of the nation. In Virginia, for example, a rural man is 2.2 times more likely to die from lower respiratory disease than a man from a metropolitan area, and about 65% more likely to die from cancer or heart disease.

One reason, he said, is a lack of good-paying jobs.

"If you live in poverty, you are likely to have substandard housing, you are likely to not be able to afford health care," Meit explained. "So, that economic stability piece, I believe, is the most important determinant that we can be looking at."

He is convinced a major reason for the disparities is rural areas did not rebound after the Great Recession, while urban areas had better recovery. He thinks creating more jobs and investing in rural communities could help close health gaps.

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