Health professionals from across the Central Valley gathered in Delano Friday to discuss at the Rural Poverty and Health Equity Summit a new collaboration that addresses health inequities in rural communities.
At the event, health experts introduced the Health Equity and Learning (HEAL) initiative, a new multi-county collaborative with a mission to lift the voices of rural communities of the San Joaquin Valley by connecting resources and bringing about policy changes needed to improve rural health.
“BC is really proud to hold this incredible collaboration right from UC Merced all the way to Kern County,” said BC president Sonya Christian. “This is the launch of something that is going to be amazing in terms of finding solutions for our communities and intentionally held in a rural community of Delano.”
The idea of HEAL initially started in May and has now become a coalition that involves experts from six counties — Madera, Merced, Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Kern — fighting for health equities in their communities.
Members from UC Merced, UC San Francisco at Fresno, Central Valley Health Policy Institute, Central Valley medical professionals, and Bakersfield College Health and Workforce training programs are involved in the collaborative.
“The idea of HEAL right now is we are inviting this large network so that together, we can start figuring out solutions,” Christian said. “Together, we can figure out if there are possibilities to solve issues through policy, through practice, and through bringing resources to our area.”
HEAL’s goals are to serve as a catalyst for local, state and national collaboration, according to BC’s website, and to act as a force on behalf of all rural health constituencies/communities.
To fulfill it’s mission, HEAL advocates for rural health by informing policy makers and stakeholder about Central Valley circumstances; launches pilot studies designed to create regional outreach tool kits and trainings addressing rural health, food security, and well-being; strengthens the regional workforce and economy; engages in regional dialog to engender policy creation at the national level; enhance rural economic and community growth across the nation through a linked network of information, resources and political action; and generates funding to ensure that resources are commensurate with rural community needs.
Those attending the event heard from a number of panelists speaking on health issues that impact the Central Valley most, such as air quality, substance abuse and health equity.
Congressman T.J. Cox moderated one of the panels and talked about the importance of community block grants and pushing for legislation that improves the health of rural communities.
“I know when we work together we can succeed, and that HEAL is taking the initiative to be the leader — to be able to create these partnerships locally, regionally, and nationally that [are] going to address our Valley’s most pressing problems,” Cox said.
Many of the panelist spoke about the health issues impacting the Central Valley, and many of these issues are not being addressed because they reside in rural communities. Speakers gave examples to raise awareness to the health inequities taking place.
“If Valley fever was found in Boston or was found in Los Angeles or was found in a large metropolitan area, this disease would’ve been taken care of decades ago,” said Kern Medical CEO Russell Judd. “But it isn’t. It happens in rural communities where rural gets overlooked.”
Another example a health professional shared is the shortage of health professionals in rural communities. Adventist Health CEO Sharlet Briggs said the shortage can be addressed through collaboration.
Thelma Hurd, Director of Medical Education at UC Merced, elaborated on how to meet the need through collaboration between communities of geography, education, business, advocacy and policy.
“There’s a rich network of educational institutions across the spectrum,” she said. “There’s an incredible opportunity to leverage unrecognized strengths, synergies and infrastructure that already exists here in the Valley.”
The 26,000-square miles from Merced to Kern counties make up a significant population of low-income rural residents with the nation’s lowest educational attainment, according to BC. This results in higher unemployment rates, increased poverty and limited access to healthcare.
Residents of California’s Central Valley have access to limited resources to improve workforce and economic development and experience, “few opportunities to carry out research and evaluate failing systems or leverage social and political power to eliminate health inequities,” BC’s website says.
Dr. Tania Pacheco Warner, co-director of the Central Valley Health Policy Institute, talked about her decision to join the collaborative and highlighted the importance of listening to people’s stories in conjunction with science.
“When they say something to decision-makers, it doesn’t necessarily always carry the same weight if there’s not science behind it,” she said. “Community voices are also data … I want to be able to use data to validate what people already know and to augment their voice.”
Featured Photo: Congressman T.J. Cox talks with attendees during the break. Courtesy of Bakersfield College Twitter @BAKCollege
Kern Sol News is a youth-led journalism organization in Kern County. In their stories, reporters shine light on health and racial disparities in under-served communities across Kern. For more stories by South Kern Sol, head to southkernsol.org.