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Op-ed: Closing the divide between urban and rural health care

by Mun Y. Choi, UM System President

Disparities between urban and rural health care are a nationwide crisis, and Missouri is no exception. The overwhelming majority of Missouri counties have shortages in primary or mental health care providers, and rural residents are significantly more likely to die from accidents and disease than those who live in urban areas. But despite these grim realities, the divide is not insurmountable. 

As the president of the University of Missouri System, I have called for the full reach and resources of our network of universities and health systems to improve the quality and accessibility of health care for all Missourians. The result is the NextGen Precision Health Initiative, a full-throttle investment in the health care infrastructure of our state.

Bringing together expert faculty, state-of-the-art technology and strategic partnerships with industry leaders, this initiative will boost our ability to deliver medical breakthroughs and care to underserved communities. Take our partnership with Siemens Healthineers, which offers our students, researchers and medical professionals access to advanced health technologies. As the UM System trains and deploys skilled doctors and specialists to careers in rural communities, they will carry these technologies — and the breakthroughs they enable — from paved city blocks to gravel roads and pastures. 

In fact, the MU School of Medicine’s Rural Track Pipeline Program is already bringing care providers to where they are needed most; approximately 55% of physicians trained through this program end up practicing in rural areas, as opposed to 10% of the general physician population. By motivating our students to bring their expertise to underserved areas, the program is already making an impact, and that impact is sure to grow. Just a few months ago, the program received a $4.2 million federal grantfor enhancements to a variety of rural-focused medical curriculums.

The technology and innovations these students and researchers are bringing with them is being developed across the entire UM System. At the University of Missouri-Kansas City, students are training at the cutting edge of high performance computing and data analytics, vital skills in a world where efficient health care is increasingly dependent on computer networks and digital data storage.

Researchers at the Missouri University of Science and Technology are working to develop new biomaterials, which can augment or replace natural physiological functions in order to help the body heal itself. To name just one example, S&T researchers have created glass that can heal wounds and help treat diseases such as cancer.

And to help battle the opioid crisis, the University of Missouri-St. Louis is tackling the issue from every angle. From federally-funded efforts to enhance health care providers’ overdose responses to providing those in recovery with pathways back into the workforce, UMSL is taking real steps toward lowering the number of people who fall victim to opioid addiction in Missouri and nationwide.

While these efforts have important impacts individually, together — along with a host of other programs and investments — they are strengthening a statewide health infrastructure driven by UM’s doctors, researchers and extension offices. This emphasis on health as infrastructure reflects an understanding that no single advancement or solution will heal every disparity. Rural physicians are vital, for instance, but where there are gaps, we can fill them with telehealth services that allow for remote access to diagnoses and care. These services, in turn, depend on reliable high-speed internet coverage and the incomparable reach of devoted extension offices throughout the state. To solve the rural health crisis, I believe we must take a holistic view that incorporates the interconnected nature of the issues and their solutions.

To that end, the NextGen Initiative — and its core facility in Columbia, which broke ground in June — is a nexus point where the diverse elements of the UM health system converge. As we strengthen this core, we fortify the network of lifesaving medical care and research that it supports. Whether we are piloting new software — like the NAVIFY Tumor Board, which helps doctors make critical decisions for cancer patients and could speed up care for rural patients — or immersing medical students in rural clinical settings, the end result is a healthier, more connected Missouri. 

From Adair to Wright County, and every county in between, that means hope.