New Study Finds Rural Healthcare Workers "Overtaxed" & More Harassed | Big Horn Basin Media

New Study Finds Rural Healthcare Workers “Overtaxed” & More Harassed

Written by on June 6, 2023

Urban and rural healthcare systems share more similarities than one might expect. Small rural healthcare systems like Cody Regional Health can provide the same caliber of care expected in large cities. But there are vast differences, and – according to a new study – those differences can even be observed in their employees’ unique experiences and opinions.

A new study, “Competencies, Training Needs, and Turnover Among Rural Compared With Urban Local Public Health Practitioners: 2021 Public Health Workforce Interests and Needs Survey,” was published on May 17 in the American Journal of Public Health. Throughout 2021, more than 29,000 public health workers in rural and urban areas completed a survey asking about training needs, competencies, turnover, and stressors.

Historically, such surveys have been sent only to medium and large health districts; this was the first time this survey included workers in small rural jurisdictions, according to lead author Paula Kett, a nurse and public health specialist.

Public health workers in rural America are often overtaxed by the clinical and administrative demands of their work. During the COVID-19 pandemic, they also faced a lack of support to make daily, data-based decisions in their jobs, experienced unique stressors to their well-being, and reported instances of harassment they attributed to their roles, the new research shows.

“One of the main takeaways from our study is that rural health workers have core competencies in cross-sector collaboration, systems thinking, and in engaging the community,” said Kett, a research scientist at the Center for Health Workforce Studies at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

On the other hand, the survey also showed that workers in small jurisdictions needed more training in collecting and making use of data for decision-making, she added. Such skills include analyzing and translating data to inform health messages to the public, allocating staff, and evaluating or guiding the implementation of public health programs and services.

“The need for using data in decision-making and communicating to the public was especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Kett observed.

One survey question dealt with the day-to-day stressors that workers experienced during the pandemic. Those in rural jurisdictions reported more harassment than their urban counterparts and attributed it to their roles.

“The public health workers were charged with asking people in the community to do things that some may not have agreed with, like mask mandates or stay-at-home directives,” Kett said.

Rural public health workers also responded that they needed more training in diversity and inclusion and in how to incorporate these concepts into community outreach. Rural communities have generally trended white demographically, but that is quickly changing, Kett noted.

Despite the stressors, rural public healthcare workers seemed less inclined to leave their jobs than their urban counterparts, the authors noted.

“We really don’t know why,” Kett said. “That needs to be explored more. We know many rural public health staff are from the communities they serve and are rooted there, which may be part of the answer. Many public health staff are also very devoted to their jobs. And there are likely additional reasons for this finding, but we can only speculate on what they might be.”

The survey was sent to 137,000 U.S. public health workers in small, medium, and large community health departments, as well as to state health departments. Kett said a larger national survey including more states and more rural public health agencies is planned for 2024.

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