As the new President of the Rural Health Association of Oklahoma, I would like to introduce myself. My name is Joan Walters, RN, MSN, and I am currently the CEO at Prague Community Hospital. I have worked in rural healthcare for more than 35 years:  first as a health occupations student, then an RN in med/surg, ER, and surgery; as a Chief Nursing Officer; as a coordinator for infection control, quality improvement, risk management, and safety, and I have served in the CEO role since 2004.  I currently serve on the Lincoln County Board of Health. I know first-hand the challenges and issues of rural health care and the importance of having accessible primary and emergency health care in rural areas.

My goals are for the association to do its best to help fellow rural health care providers to keep up-to-date on new issues in the forefront;  to help them access resources and information to deal with current issues and concerns, and to do what we can in a collaborative effort to make Oklahoma a healthier state.  There is a lot of uncertainty in the future of healthcare. Whatever type of healthcare payor systems are put in place, we cannot ensure the future unless we find ways to make the most of our resources as health care providers.  Given the looming physician shortage, we also have to find ways to ensure the availability of providers for our rural areas.

We also need to find ways to make individuals become more accountable for their own health.  Billions of dollars are expended each year on diseases and conditions that could be prevented through improved diet, activity, smoking cessation, and other factors. Oklahoma must rise up out of the bottom of the health statistics pile. This will not be an easy or quick task. We have to find ways to change the culture of individuals in their health habits, which may seem like an impossible and daunting task.  How do we change the culture of individuals and families? This will take a lot of collaboration on the part of various types of entities. I feel this can best be done through getting healthcare systems (public and private – large and small), communities, cities, organizations, and individuals involved. I was glad to see our combined conference this year with the Primary Care Association and the Office of Rural Health. The Area Health Education Center, with Andy Fosmire and his team, and the Oklahoma Foundation for Medical Quality and Physicians Manpower, have been great partners in helping us to work toward our goals. Working together on the same issues, toward the same goals, only provides strength to our efforts.

There are already some good things happening in the way of Turning Point coalitions, tobacco cessation initiatives, and movement towards certified healthy businesses and cities. However, we still have to find ways to help those in the very most rural areas to become more health aware, starting with the very young, before unhealthy behaviors become lifelong habits. We need to prepare healthcare providers and continue to encourage them to practice in the rural areas so access to acute care, primary care, and health care prevention is readily available.

If you have not been involved in our conferences, we urge you to contact us and let us know what your concerns and needs are. If you have participated, we want to know any suggestions you have for the next conference for topics that will help your facility or practice to be better prepared for the challenges ahead.

The mission of RHAO, “Serving as a united voice for Oklahomans in the promotion of rural health issues, through advocacy, education, and leadership” continues to guide the board. Quarterly, we continue to hold rural health roundtable discussions and reach out to the four corners of the state to gather information about what topics are important to the rural citizens of Oklahoma.

Thank you and I look forward to working with all of you these next two years.

Joan Walters, RN, MSN
Rural Health Association of Oklahoma

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