Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences building mug

(Yakima Herald-Republic file)

The global pandemic has, rightfully so, grabbed headlines as we all grapple with its ongoing impacts on our health care system. What COVID-19 has also made painfully clear is how strained that system is, particularly in rural communities.

The fact that rural health care is underfunded and understaffed is a story we know all too well — one that started long before the pandemic. The lingering impacts from COVID-19 could have a ripple effect on the more than 1 million Washingtonians who live in rural areas and already face long-standing hardships when trying to receive care.

A 2017 study from the National Rural Health Association found people living in rural areas have less access to primary and preventive care, and are more likely to experience chronic disease, disability and premature death. Also, by 2034, the U.S. is projected to face a shortage of up to 124,000 physicians, 48,000 of whom will be in primary care alone, according to a 2021 study by the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Health care workers who serve rural communities are retiring at a higher rate than their urban counterparts, and more often than not newer providers are moving to urban areas where they believe there are better opportunities.

We must address these growing gaps now or health outcomes for rural residents will continue their steep decline and further stress an already overtaxed health care system. We can’t afford to sit on the sidelines and let this crisis continue to grow.

Premera, MultiCare Health System, Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences and others recognize an essential part of the solution is proactively strengthening and growing the pathway for future health care workers focused on serving rural communities.

This is why our three organizations are working together to increase the capacity for rural family medicine residencies and job opportunities in Washington. These types of partnerships are critical to the success of long-term efforts to improve health care for our neighbors living in Washington’s rural areas.

Premera invested $5.5 million to support PNWU’s rural family medicine educational pathway and training, which was developed in collaboration with MultiCare. This comprehensive program establishes a new rural family medicine residency in Omak, accepting two new residents every year. It also includes enhanced recruitment efforts, specialized curriculum to prepare medical students for their residencies, and a living stipend during students’ rural-focused clinical rotations.

Students in the residency program complete a year of clinical rotations at the MultiCare Tacoma Family Medicine clinic and two years of training at Family Health Centers, a health care provider in Omak.

This effort is on top of the $8 million that MultiCare invested in growing PNWU’s efforts to train clinicians for rural health care. What’s also impactful about PNWU’s efforts is that more than 75% of their students are from the Northwest and nearly 70% of graduates have returned to the Northwest to practice. A vast majority of them are focusing on primary care. This reflects PNWU’s “Recruit, Educate, Return” approach.

Who better understands the health care challenges facing rural Americans than the young people who live in and love these communities? Training these future primary care providers to focus on rural care and return to their beloved hometowns will help not only grow the pipeline but serve as an example of a career pathway for future generations.

While there is tremendous work to address gaps in rural health care underway by PNWU, University of Washington, Washington State University and many others, we need more people at the table. We urge leaders to join us to ensure equitable access to care for rural residents. Where you live and the size of your community should not dictate the quality of your health care.

Jeff Roe is CEO of Premera Blue Cross, Bill Robertson is CEO of MultiCare Health System and Michael Lawler, Ph.D, is president of Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences in Yakima.