The mission of all hospitals and health systems, regardless of size and location, is to provide quality care to patients and advance health in their communities.

For the 61 million people who live in rural America, their local hospital provides essential services and programs to advance their health and the health of their communities. In fact, rural hospitals also play a very important role in the economic and social fabric of their communities.

This morning at the AHA Rural Health Care Leadership Conference, I spoke about the critical role of rural hospitals and health systems in their communities, the challenges they face, and the solutions we can advance to support access to care in those communities.

As the leader of Dartmouth Health, one of the very most rural academic medical centers in the country, I see the challenges for rural residents and rural hospitals firsthand every day. Our challenges are similar to those at other hospitals and health systems across the country. Issues like poverty, lack of transportation, lack of housing and child care, limited access to and coverage of essential health services, government underpayment for care services, and workforce shortages are a little more difficult to navigate in rural areas. It comes down to the impact these issues are having on health equity.

But I also see the commitment and hard work of health care professionals continuing to deliver world class care despite enormous pressures.

This is an important year for advancing advocacy priorities that support rural hospitals and the patients and communities they serve. Tomorrow at the Rural Health Care Leadership Conference, AHA leaders will outline the association’s Rural Advocacy Agenda. It focuses on enacting policies that will bolster the health care workforce; enhancing telehealth services; protecting the 340B Drug Pricing Program; and addressing underpayment by the government and commercial insurance plans, as well as inappropriate denials for medically necessary care — just to name a few. These all represent critical lifelines for sustainability in delivering care in the rural community.

I’m extremely energized to see more than 1,000 people, including trustees, physician executives, nursing administrators, public health officials and community leaders, at this year’s conference. During the next three days, visionary rural health care leaders will share actionable strategies and resources aimed at improving access to care, leveraging unique workforce approaches, implementing digital technologies and prioritizing health equity.

This week’s conference, like many other AHA events throughout the year, provides an opportunity to discuss challenges, learn from each other and find solutions. Working together we can protect and enhance access to care, accelerate innovation and advance health for the patients and communities we serve.

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