Best of the West: Addressing rural healthcare; A first of it’s kind affordable housing lease; Sustainable train travel; and the World’s biggest optics

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting Oct. 2, 2023. (Photos courtesy of Steve Glischinski, and the University of Arizona).

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, more than 60 million Americans—about one-fifth of the U.S. population—live in rural areas. It also reported more than 100 (or 4% of) rural hospitals closed from 2013 through 2020. As a result, residents had to travel about 20 miles farther for common services like inpatient care, and 40 miles farther for less common services, such as alcohol or drug misuse treatment.

In order to reverse this trend, 34 members of Congress recently developed The Bipartisan Rural Health Caucus to highlight potential policy solutions, including stemming hospital closures, ensuring fair and adequate reimbursement rates, strengthening the health workforce, reducing health inequities, and expanding telehealth and other innovative care delivery models. 

The Caucus held its first meeting on Sept. 20, after which the co-chair, Rep. Jill Tokuda of Hawai’i said, “From increasing mental health needs to expanding broadband to support telehealth and addressing provider shortages, it’s clear that while our districts vary in location and demographic, we are united in the fight to improve health care access.”

Many western communities, however, are not sitting around and waiting for federal legislation to pass in order to address the issue. 

As part of an effort by Arizona’s public university system to fill gaps in the state’s health care workforce, Northern Arizona University is creating a new medical school. NAU President José Luis Cruz Rivera called the move a "bold and transformative step" that will help serve communities in rural Arizona that have long struggled with healthcare access.

OCHIN, an Oregon-based nonprofit focused on equitable healthcare innovation, now offers OCHIN Epic to rural hospitals nationwide. The full-service inpatient electronic health record (EHR) system supports interdisciplinary care plans and clinical teams across a full range of care. With four hospitals already live on the new system and five more onboarding across six states, the system helps ensure that smaller hospitals can seamlessly connect care for their patients and recruit new talent using clinicians' electronic health records (EHR) platform of choice.

Other communities have begun to rely more heavily on telehealth.  

St. Luke’s and Saint Alphonsus health systems in Idaho have gradually adjusted the way their staffs deliver patient care to maximize efficiency amid industry-wide labor shortages — not unlike many hospitals across the country. That includes using cameras and microphones to tend to patients remotely, even from other, nearby areas of the hospital.

The Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC) is establishing an institute focused on expanding and enhancing healthcare delivery through digital technologies. The TTUHSC Institute of Telehealth and Digital Innovation aims to support rural healthcare access through a hub-and-spoke model operating via hubs established at TTUHSC's campuses. From these hubs, the institute will extend healthcare services in rural areas using telehealth and working with local entities to utilize existing community resources.

UC California Davis launched ACTIVATE, a public-private, remote patient monitoring program for patients with diabetes in four community health centers across the valley. The program also included virtual health coaching sessions twice a month, which many patients credited for taking better care of themselves. 

Intermountain Health in Utah has continued to build on the local hotline resource in response to growing behavioral health needs in communities throughout the state. This includes Intermountain's Connect Care/Behavioral Health Hotline – the telehealth option that anyone in the state can use. 

Affordable Housing: White River National Forest officials and Summit County government leaders signed a lease for a first-of-its-kind housing project on Sept. 27. With a lease in hand, officials are ready to move forward on a proposal to bring between 162 and 177 income-based rental units to a roughly 11-acre parcel of Forest Service land northeast of Dillon, Colorado. As the most-visited National Forest in the country, the new housing will fill a critical need for Dillon Ranger District staff members who, according to Bianchi, make between $37,000 and $57,000 annually.

Sustainable Train Travel: The Amtrak Pacific Surfliner rail service in California, which travels from Los Angeles to San Diego to San Luis Obispo, will now operate on renewable diesel made from raw materials like cooking oil. Compared to fossil diesel, RD significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 63% throughout its lifecycle, providing a steep increase to the sustainability of rail travel in Southern California. Furthermore, the switch to RD offers the potential to reduce other harmful emissions, including fine particulates and nitrogen oxides leading to improved local air quality.

Strengthening Economic Ties: Washington Governor Jay Inslee was joined by the United Kingdom Minister for Industry and Economic Security, Nusrat Ghani, to sign a trade Memorandum of Understanding, strengthening economic ties between the two. The UK now has MoUs with six US states, including Oklahoma, and Utah, that have already facilitated substantial trade, with these states collectively importing £5.1 billion worth of UK goods in 2022 alone.

The World's Biggest Optics: Beneath the stands of the Arizona Wildcats Football Stadium, researchers from the University’s Department of Astronomy recently began the four-year process to fabricate and polish its seventh and final primary mirror of The Giant Magellan Telescope, the world's largest and most challenging optics ever produced. Once completed the telescope will collect more light than any other telescope in existence, providing detailed chemical analyses of celestial objects and their origin. 

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