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Talking pandemic challenges and podcasts with NRHA President Beth O’Connor

After two long years, NRHA President Beth O’Connor is ready to see everyone in person. A passionate rural health advocate and longtime NRHA member, O’Connor has attended her fair share of Zoom calls and virtual meetings during the pandemic — including NRHA’s virtual Rural Health Policy Institute in February, which marked her seventeenth time participating in this unique advocacy event.

NRHA recently sat down with O’Connor — over the phone, of course — to learn more about her rural health priorities, her goals as NRHA president, and why she will definitely be at NRHA’s Annual Rural Health Conference in Albuquerque this spring.


Tell us a little bit about your background — did you grow up in a rural community?

I grew up in rural Minnesota. I’m from a rural community, so rural health is obviously a passion, and my educational background was in health promotion. Then I started getting involved in advocacy, and I realized that working for the Virginia Rural Health Association was a great way to bring all of those things together. I came to Virginia when my husband got transferred here for work, and that happened to be right when this job opened up. It was good timing. I’ve been executive director of the Virginia Rural Health Association since 2005.

What are some of the most rewarding and challenging aspects of your work?

I think probably the most rewarding part is being able to work with like-minded people all across Virginia and all across the country with a combined passion for rural health issues. The biggest challenge is that sometimes what we do involves such tiny, incremental steps that it’s hard to see how it’s making a difference in the bigger picture. An example would be working on substance use disorders — just because of the nature of that issue, it’s very hard to point to something and say, “We have a win here.”


What have been some of your rural health priorities in recent years?

In addition to substance use disorders, we have launched our Pride of Rural Virginia Initiative, which looks specifically at health equity for the LGBTQ+ population in our rural communities. We’re also looking to ensure rural health clinics have access to the training and resources they need to make a difference in their communities.

In the future — beyond the pandemic — we need a greater emphasis on the importance of making sure everyone has good access to primary care. I think sometimes we get so caught up in the disparities and access to specialists and telehealth and other pieces of the puzzle that we forget that just basic checkups are services that some people don’t have a way to get to.


What are some of your goals as NRHA president this year?

My goal for this year is to develop a greater emphasis on what rural has to offer. We’ve used the mantra “older, poorer, sicker” to the point where it no longer does anything to benefit rural. We need to talk more about what is it that rural has that it can offer. Rural has a certain lifestyle — a lack of traffic jams and more access to outdoor activities.

"In the future — beyond the pandemic — we need a greater emphasis on the importance of making sure everyone has good access to primary care."

- Beth O’Connor, M.Ed.

We also need to focus on the infrastructure of our rural communities to make sure services like education, broadband, and transportation are available for our citizens. In combination with health care, those are the backbones of rural communities that will allow them to thrive.



What are some of the biggest benefits NRHA provides to our members?

The resources and coaching that NRHA provides in engaging our elected officials is so helpful, along with the whole process of the Policy Institute and how NRHA makes it easy to develop relationships with members of Congress. When you get the chance to talk to a member of Congress one on one, it’s obvious that they really do care, as opposed to the media spin that we tend to see all the time. Their staff is willing to take our concerns very seriously. Politicians get big lobbyists’ attention all the time, but they know those aren’t the people who are really living and working in their districts. To be able to hear directly from folks on the ground makes a big difference.

I would also encourage people to get involved in advocacy at the state level. It ensures they are supporting state-level activities and policies that govern rural health and health care, which can make a big difference. We need to not lose sight of that.

What NRHA event are you most excited to attend this year?

I’m really looking forward to the Annual Rural Health Conference — it will be great to see everyone and have the ability to reconnect to other people who are passionate about rural health issues. I’ve been to 16 Annual Conferences at this point, but one of the most memorable was in 2007, when we went to Anchorage and had the opportunity to tour some of those small Native Alaskan villages in the health care system. It was absolutely eye opening.

Finally, we really love your Rural Health Voice podcast — can you tell us how it got started?

In 2017, my board president at the time was a self-proclaimed podcast junkie. She came to me out of the blue one day and said, “Beth, we should have a podcast.” I applied for one of the NRHA grants to the State Association Council for special technical assistance, and I got the grant — which is cool, except then I had to start a podcast. We launched it in September 2018, and we are now 72 episodes in. We have talked about travel nurses, LGBTQ+ issues in rural communities, substance use disorders, transportation, broadband, vaccines — not just COVID but also HPV and meningitis — just a little bit of everything. It has turned out really well, and I love doing it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

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