By James Neal, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
Recruiting, training and retaining doctors and health-care professionals is a constant challenge for rural communities.
Rural Health Projects is celebrating 20 years of helping rural and under-served communities address that challenge, by building partnerships and helping increase the pool of health care workers in northwest Oklahoma.
Based on the Northwestern Oklahoma State University-Enid campus, Rural Health Projects traces its roots back to 1989, when Northwest Osteopathic Foundation was awarded an Area Health Education Center grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
When it came time to renew the grant in 1992, Rural Health Projects was established as a stand-alone nonprofit to administer the AHEC grant and expand health education programs in northwest Oklahoma.
Modeled after the agriculture extension service organization, the AHEC system is meant to serve as a link between rural and under-served communities and a host medical school.
Denny Krick, who served on the Rural Health Projects board when it was starting out in the early 1990s, said the organization was founded to get resources out to rural towns in northwest Oklahoma.
“Rural Health Projects is there to get out into the rural communities and to develop projects that need leadership, and then tie those organizations into the resources available here in town, especially the Garfield County Health Department,” Krick said. “We have a lot of small towns, and there aren’t a lot of resources out there. We were able to reach out to them and help them do some things they couldn’t do for themselves.”
Twenty years into its mission, Rural Health Projects still is working to match the needs of rural communities with county and state resources. But, the nonprofit also has expanded to take on new roles, all aimed at increasing availability of healthcare services.
Rural Health Projects Executive Director Andy Fosmire, who has served with the organization for nearly 12 years, said the nonprofit now encompasses a variety of grants and contract services in addition to its original AHEC role.
Current work includes:
• A grant from the federal Office of Rural Health Policy, to promote health care workforce development programs in northwest Oklahoma.
• A Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust (TSET) grant to promote tobacco prevention and cessation programs, and provide organizational management for the Garfield County Tobacco Free Coalition.
• A contract to provide organizational management for the Rural Health Association of Oklahoma.
• A contract to serve as the fiscal agent for Northwest Oklahoma Healthcare Education Coalition.
• A variety of short-term research grants.
Fosmire said all of the grants and contracts undertaken by Rural Health Projects forward the goal of increasing access to quality primary care in northwest Oklahoma.
He said that goal is advanced along three primary fronts: recruiting junior high and high school students to pursue health profession careers, facilitating clinical education and clinical rotations for health professionals in the region and retaining health professionals in northwest Oklahoma communities by providing continuing education.
Fosmire said Rural Health Projects is focused on recruiting not just physicians, but the whole spectrum of medical service professionals.
“It’s not just about physicians,” he said. “It’s about all the ancillary professionals ... who support that physician in the practice of medicine. Without all of those ancillary services, it’s hard for that physician to practice medicine.”
Rural Health Projects has continued to perform its healthcare education role despite a recent setback.
In August, the Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine opted not to renew its grant as the state AHEC host. Without a host medical college, Rural Health Projects and the other three Oklahoma AHEC centers lost their grant funding.
The withdrawal of the AHEC grant meant a 28 percent cut in the Rural Health Projects budget.
Fosmire said he and his staff have continued to perform AHEC services out of the general budget and reserve funds for Rural Health Projects, in hopes the grant will be renewed next year with another medical school.
“My goal is to maintain the structure of the organization in Oklahoma so we can reapply for the grant in the next cycle,” Fosmire said.
But, with or without the AHEC grant, Fosmire said Rural Health Projects will continue to pursue other grants and contracts to fund its mission.
“Being a nonprofit doesn’t mean you can’t generate revenue, and when we’re able to generate revenue we can pay for projects the board wants us to do that we couldn’t pay for in any other way,” Fosmire said. “We’re pretty much always submitting proposals for grants and contracts.”
Brent Kisling, executive director of Enid Regional Development Alliance and incoming chairman of the Rural Health Projects board of directors, said the nonprofit is on sound fiscal footing thanks to Fosmire’s leadership.
“It’s difficult when an organization loses funding like with the AHEC grant, but what’s unique with Rural Health Projects is our executive director has done a great job of keeping us fiscally sound and finding other sources of revenue to keep us strong enough that we can make a real impact in the community,” Kisling said.
“As an organization, we can’t sit around and wait for funding. We need to keep moving forward and finding ways to meet our mission, and Andy [Fosmire] has done a great job of that for us.”
Kisling said Rural Health Projects’ mission of developing northwest Oklahoma’s medical infrastructure factors directly into the region’s economic development.
“Our biggest issue in northwest Oklahoma right now is workforce recruitment, and if you don’t have a strong healthcare segment, you will not be able to bring in workforce,” Kisling said. “With healthcare being such an important component of our local economy and such an important issue nationwide, I think there will always be an important mission for Rural Health Projects.”
Local hospital administrators said Rural Health Projects serves an important mission for northwest Oklahomans.
“We are proud to partner with Rural Health Projects on several endeavors, and share a mission of improving health in the lives of those living in Garfield County,” said Integris Bass Baptist Health Center President Jeff Tarrant. “Rural Health Projects helps us meet that mission, through innovative programs geared at introducing people to health-related careers and then taking the next step in developing career opportunities.”
Ashley Olivo, business development director at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center, said Rural Health Projects helps keep northwest Oklahoma natives here after they finish medical training.
“We have been successful in staying in contact with students from across the state who indicated an interest in northwest Oklahoma,” Olivo said. “Many of these students are interested in coming home, where they have family and friends, and want to contribute to the overall welfare of the community.
“Additionally, numerous members of our Medical Staff were born and raised in northwest Oklahoma and remain here today. The collaborative effort between St. Mary’s and the Rural Health Projects provides northwest Oklahoma with quality, healthcare professionals.”
Fosmire said he’s looking forward to building on the last 20 years’ work in improving healthcare access in northwest Oklahoma.
“Hands down, this is the best job I’ve ever had,” he said. “There’s just such great value in what we do, but most of it goes unseen in the community. We work with very specific groups, and if you’re not in one of those groups you may not see what we’re doing in the community.”
The public is invited to learn more about Rural Health Projects and meet the staff at a 20th anniversary come-and-go reception, 4-5:30 p.m. Wednesday at NWOSU-Enid, Room 131.