At Rural Health Conference, a focus on accessing quality care

UTA’s Center for Rural Health and Nursing hosts inaugural conference

Tuesday, Nov 15, 2022 • Neph Rivera : Contact

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Mike (left) and John Henderson

Rural medical experts from across the state came together and exchanged their experiences, plans and ideas on how to ensure all Texans, regardless of location, have access to quality medical care.

The University of Texas at Arlington’s Center for Rural Health and Nursing hosted the inaugural Rural Health Conference at the University Center in October.

“This allows us to work together with rural communities across Texas to see what we can do collectively to make an impact on access to care and quality of care, particularly to address any health workforce shortage,” Elizabeth Merwin, the center’s director and dean of the College of Nursing and Health Innovation (CONHI). “We desire to do a better job to recruit rural residents into our prelicensure RN baccalaureate program and into our nurse practitioner program, helping reduce nursing shortages in rural communities.”

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Elizabeth Merwin

Earlier this year, UTA announced the opening of the Center for Rural Health and Nursing. Funded by a $4 million legislative appropriation by the state of Texas, the center aims to improve rural nursing and education and the health outcomes of rural populations.

The conference began with John Henderson, president and CEO of the Texas Organization of Rural & Community Hospitals (TORCH), a statewide group that advocates for rural health issues and supports local access and delivery of health care to rural Texans, discussing the current state of rural health care in the state. There are 158 rural hospitals in Texas; 124 are designated trauma centers, with most of them classified as Level IV basic trauma facilities.

Only about 40% of rural hospitals provide OB-GYN services, he said. And in at least one case, a hospital can only deliver babies Monday-Thursday.

A 2019 hospital closure in Bowie illustrates why rural health care is so important, Henderson said. After the closure, sales tax revenue and school enrollment both fell. Homes that were put on the market then are still listed today. Businesses that were considering Bowie as a location chose otherwise because their employees would not have health care access.

“It’s like this domino effect,” Henderson said. “You see the whole community fall down when they lose their hospital.”

Henderson’s father, Dr. Mike Henderson, a physician with more than 40 years’ experience, discussed the countless relationships he has built as a rural physician, such as the 3,200 babies he estimates he delivered.

“One year, I went through the roster of our high school football team, and I had delivered half of them,” he said.

Rural health is a unique field with a unique set of challenges. But it also has its benefits, the elder Henderson said.

“The best thing about rural medicine?” he asked. “You get to treat your family and friends and neighbors.”