RALEIGH – On Monday, the North Carolina Institute of Medicine Task Force on Rural Health released the first comprehensive North Carolina Rural Health Action Plan that sets forth recommendations to reduce health disparities and increase economic stability across North Carolina’s rural communities.
The Action Plan, with six priority areas, identifies strategies at the state and local levels that range from behavioral health to childhood development to investments in high-speed broadband Internet – all of which focus on increasing the health and well-being of rural North Carolina.
For the first time, the Task Force went to local areas across rural North Carolina to learn from the experts – those who call rural North Carolina home – to gather critical input used in developing the Action Plan.
“Rural North Carolina faces unique challenges that must be addressed to improve health outcomes,” said Dr. Adam Zolotor, MD, DrPH, interim president and CEO, North Carolina Institute of Medicine. “Improving health outcomes in rural North Carolina is more than simply bringing doctors and hospitals to less populated areas. It’s about strengthening economic opportunities, investing in education and ensuring that rural North Carolinians are equipped with the resources they need to flourish. It will require hard work and collaboration, but with the right plan and tools in place, we will see results.”
One in five North Carolinians, almost 2.2 million people, live in 60 rural counties – 28 in the Coastal Plain, 14 in the Piedmont and 18 in the Mountains. Rural North Carolina has a rich cultural and industrial heritage, people who are self-reliant and innovative, and a strong sense of community. People from rural communities are less likely to have access to health services, are more likely to engage in risky health behaviors and have a higher mortality rate on average than North Carolinians living in non-rural areas.
In Bladen County, Task Force members found a number of strong indicators for poor health. Twenty-five percent – a quarter of Bladen County residents – are living below the poverty line, and 10 percent are unemployed. In addition, Bladen County has a high prevalence of adult obesity with 36 percent of the population reporting a BMI greater than 30. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this figure is significantly higher than the North Carolina average obesity rate of 29 percent. Obesity is a leading cause of heart disease, diabetes and other life-threatening illnesses.
“This plan is particularly compelling because it identifies and provides practical action steps to tackle the health risks associated with farmers, foresters and fishers living in rural North Carolina Communities,” said Robin Tutor-Marcom, director of the North Carolina Agromedicine Institute.
North Carolina’s health disparities go far beyond health care. In recent years, the struggling manufacturing and agricultural industries have created an increasing gap between North Carolina’s rural and urban counties. More rural residents live below the poverty line, which is directly tied to poor health.
To increase economic security and thus the overall level of health among rural residents, the Action Plan calls on the General Assembly, health care and business leaders, and local communities to implement short- and long-term plans and programs geared toward improving the economic stability of local communities.
The Task Force on Rural Health is a collaboration made up of the North Carolina Institute of Medicine, the Office of Rural Health and Community Care, the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust and other partners.