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NRHA’s new rural obesity and chronic disease partnership

When it comes to grave public health threats, obesity is comparable only to smoking. The National Institutes of Health reports obesity as the second leading cause of preventable death in the United States, contributing to the deaths of more than 300,000 Americans annually. Smoking is the lone cause with a higher mortality rate according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, killing one in five Americans each year. Being obese or overweight puts individuals at risk for many chronic conditions, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and some forms of cancer. In many cases, obesity can also impact and be exacerbated by a person’s mental health and well-being, contributing to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and sleep disorders.
Like many public health threats, obesity is more prevalent in rural areas. Studies show that rural adults are more likely to be obese than their urban counterparts, with particularly high rates among rural African Americans. A JAMA study from 2013 to 2016 found that the prevalence of obesity among adults in nonmetropolitan areas was 43.1 percent, while adults in small and large metropolitan areas had rates of 42.4 and 35.1 percent, respectively. This indicates that rural adults are more susceptible to develop a chronic disease compared to urban adults – all while facing significant barriers to care and having fewer resources to get and stay healthy.
Given these obstacles, it is apparent that rural health care providers need accessible resources to help their patients manage chronic disease and lead healthier lives. To equip rural communities with the tools they need to combat the obesity epidemic, NRHA has partnered with Novo Nordisk to create the National Rural Obesity and Chronic Disease Initiative. The overarching goal of this partnership is to improve access to quality health care and preventive services and provide more equitable coverage for rural residents.

“Obesity and chronic disease are growing public health concerns that threaten the long-term health of rural residents,” says NRHA CEO Alan Morgan. “It is necessary that individuals who live in rural areas have access to quality health care and preventive services to create thriving rural communities.”
The National Rural Obesity and Chronic Disease Initiative aims to accomplish its goals by focusing on:
  • advancing policy recommendations and analysis to target legislative and regulatory barriers through the creation of NRHA’s National Rural Obesity and Chronic Disease Interest Group.
  • fostering collaborations among NRHA members and a larger community of stakeholders to promote policy development.
  • communicating and disseminating information on rural wellness and chronic disease to highlight resources and best practices.
  • developing a compendium of best practices specific to the National Rural Obesity and Chronic Disease Initiative to highlight models and examples for addressing the needs of rural communities.

In addition to ensuring rural residents have access to the care they need, the initiative seeks to address stigma surrounding obesity and help rural health care providers become more aware of their own biases. Individuals who are obese or overweight may struggle with low self-esteem due to negative attitudes surrounding obesity in popular culture and society. Additionally, many health care providers display weight bias, with studies demonstrating that stigma in a health care setting can impact the quality of care patients receive. Even worse, an individual struggling with obesity who experiences inappropriate comments from a health care professional regarding their weight may avoid seeking care in the future, which can exacerbate chronic conditions.
NRHA and Novo Nordisk believe everyone deserves equitable access to high-quality health care, no matter their size. That is why the National Rural Obesity and Chronic Disease Initiative looks at every angle of the obesity epidemic – including the factors that may prevent someone from seeking care in the first place – and works to find new ways rural health care providers can access the resources and education they need to help their patients and communities overcome the challenges they face.
To learn more about the National Rural Obesity and Chronic Disease Initiative, visit RuralHealth.US and search for “obesity.”


Additional factors

Other challenges rural communities face include:
  • A shortage of nutritionists, dietitians, and weight management experts in rural health care facilities.
  • Limited access to exercise facilities and infrastructure such as gyms or walking trails, as well as insufficient access to healthy, affordable food.
  • An increased prevalence of being overweight among rural children compared to their urban counterparts, even after adjusting for variation in physical activity.
  • An average per capita income $7,000 lower in rural areas than urban areas, with rural Americans more likely to live below the poverty line.

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