West Virginia

WVSOM hosts 30th West Virginia Rural Health Conference

LEWISBURG (WVDN) — More than 200 state health professionals gathered on the campus of the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine (WVSOM) Oct. 19-21 for the 30th Annual West Virginia Rural Health Conference, with 60 others attending the event took part virtually.

The theme of this year’s conference was “Preparing Our Workforce and Empowering Rural West Virginia.” The event offered healthcare professionals the opportunity to network and earn continuing education credits.

Rich Sutphin, executive director of the West Virginia Rural Health Association, which organized the conference, noted that the event served as a forum to address the state’s medical needs.

“The conference helps us raise the voices of the people doing the work on the ground,” he said. “It helps create connections to enable better outcomes and access to health care in West Virginia, and it’s a cost-effective way for rural providers and organizations to educate themselves. Everyone has enjoyed getting back together in person and networking, something we haven’t been able to do in over two years.”

Participants attended a series of plenary sessions and could choose from concurrent sessions in four tracks: clinical; Innovation; Guide; and diversity, equity and inclusion. In addition to a series of sessions dedicated to work-related topics, other areas of focus included substance use disorders, recovery and engaging business leaders in improving the health of West Virginians.

In a session led by WVSOM staff, Angie Amick and Jennifer Patton from the school’s Clinical Evaluation Center demonstrated how WVSOM integrates medical virtual reality simulations into its curriculum. In another session, Haylee Heinsberg, director of public policy and advocacy at WVSOM’s Center for Rural and Community Health, chaired a panel on the increasing importance of community health workers – members of local communities who build trusting relationships with residents and facilitate access for them to health services and to improve health care.

“The community health worker profession works really well in this state because we have a reputation for helping our neighbors and reporting on disasters,” Heinsberg said. “In West Virginia, we have many community health workers who serve in religious organizations and volunteer.”

In his opening address to the conference, James W. Nemitz, Ph.D., President of WVSOM, spoke about the long tradition of physicians specializing in osteopathic medicine in West Virginia and the accomplishments of the school throughout its 50-year history.

“DOs have been in this state for more than 100 years,” he said. “Some of them helped found this school. They had a vision to see that we needed more doctors in the countryside and 50 years later we did it. We have populated the small towns of West Virginia and rural America with doctors.”

The plenary sessions included a panel of health professionals discussing rural practice, including Kim Tieman, vice president and director of programs at the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation and a member of the board of directors at the WVSOM Foundation; an investigation into implicit bias led by Shante Ellis, M.Ed., Director of Racial Justice and Inclusion at YWCA Charleston; a discussion on using intersectoral partnerships to improve rural health with Colleen Flynn, Senior Director of National Programs for the Build Healthy Places Network; and a closing session in which Bill Auxier, Ph.D., program director for the National Rural Health Association’s rural hospital certification programs, provided an overview of how his organization can help rural health leaders strengthen their leadership skills.

At the conference’s Student Poster Symposium, seven out of 14 posters were from WVSOM students. In a separate podium presentation, WVSOM sophomore Samantha DeMartino spoke about the school’s inclusion of an elective called “Exercise is Medicine” that aims to train students to use physical exercise as a expand primary treatment in medicine. Earlier this year, WVSOM became the only osteopathic medical school to be recognized by the national Exercise is Medicine initiative for its efforts to create a culture of well-being on campus.

During a keynote presentation, Deborah Koester, executive director of West Virginia Local Health, a nonprofit organization that works with local health authorities, looked back at public health workers’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic and presented findings from statewide intra-actions and after that -action reviews. Koester said that in addition to examining the actions taken by public health officials during the crisis, the reviews also included a “weathering the storm” section, which allowed public health workers to speak out about the personal impact the pandemic has had on them.

“In our public health organizations, the most important asset we have is our workforce,” Koester said. “We had nurses giving advice about isolation and quarantine and going to local football games and nobody spoke to them because they were angry. But it wasn’t all negative: we’ve also had groups bringing lunch to their local health department staff. The way communities have responded to support public health has been phenomenal.”

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