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Getting to know NRHA President Kevin Bennett

Kevin Bennett has a long history with NRHA. Wanting to get more involved with rural health advocacy efforts, he first joined the association as a student more than 20 years ago. This proved to be a smart move: Since then, he has distinguished himself as a rural health researcher and educator and held multiple NRHA leadership roles. He recently told us more about why he loves rural communities, how he chose a rural career, and what excites him most about serving as NRHA president this year.

Where are you working, and what is your role there?

I’m at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, where I’ve been faculty since 2005. I am a professor in the Department of Translational and Clinical Science and the director of the South Carolina Center for Rural and Primary Healthcare, which is funded by the state to improve rural health care delivery, training, workforce, research, and evaluation.


What is your connection to rural America? Did you grow up in a rural place?

One of my professional interests is how we define rural. I thought I grew up in a rural area – it was a quiet small town outside of Blacksburg, Va. I spent all my time outdoors, in the woods, and on the Appalachian Trail. In college I became aware that on the outskirts of the town many residents struggled with poverty, dental issues, and other common rural health challenges. Then I came to find out that the town doesn’t necessarily qualify as “rural” because it’s next to an urban county. You look at it and it’s rural, but the numbers say something different.
Kevin Bennett received NRHA's 2023 Volunteer of the Year Award.

What inspired you to pursue a rural health career?

My career path was interesting. I started off in architecture, switched majors a few times, and graduated with a nutrition and exercise degree. I worked in cardiac rehab for a while and did personal training – but I started to realize individual-level work wasn’t where change could be effected. I got my master’s degree in health administration, thinking I would run facilities and organizations that could help make a larger change. During this program I took a health policy class, and that’s when I realized what I wanted to do – I wanted to work on macro-level policy for vulnerable, rural populations.

I was accepted to the University of South Carolina for my doctoral work, and they had just received funding for a rural health research center in 2001. I was hired by Drs. Michael Samuels and Jan Probst, who both have a long history with NRHA, to do rural health research as a grad student. During this time, I received excellent mentorship – as a former NRHA president, Dr. Samuels brought me to my first NRHA meeting in 2002, and I’ve been coming ever since. It was a long journey, but once I settled in I knew it was where I wanted to be and where I could do some good.


How long have you been involved with NRHA? What are some of the biggest benefits of membership?

I’ve been an NRHA member since 2002. Daniel Patterson and I started the Student Constituency Group within the association, and in 2003 we won the first NRHA/Jon Snow award for students. NRHA has always been so accessible. I kept coming back and ended up on Policy Congress, the Board of Trustees, and multiple committees.

What I like about NRHA is you bring together so many people from micro to macro. You get so many individual stories and experiences, but you also hear about the upper-level legislative and policy impacts and everything in between. You can get a really full picture of how 340B, for instance, is impacting people, communities, systems, and federal budgets. You don’t get that from a textbook or reading an article. Associated with that is networking – you meet so many people from across the country who are doing great work. I have lifelong colleagues and friendships because of that. I can call on people in Maine, Seattle, or North Carolina to answer questions and help out, and that’s only because of NRHA.
Kevin Bennett with NRHA staff

What are your goals and priorities as NRHA president?

I think helping to keep rural on the radar as part of the national conversation is key. It’s an election year, and I want to make sure we aren’t forgotten about. I think it’s hugely important to advocate to our policymakers, administrators, agencies, program directors, and everybody who can make positive changes for rural areas. At NRHA conferences we can help educate and inspire people to keep going and take something new back to their communities to do even better.


What do you find most rewarding about working in a rural community?

I enjoy seeing changes and impacts more quickly than you would in a larger area. In rural areas there are fewer people and often the needs are greater – but you can put in one provider or implement one program and it can turn a whole community around really quickly. A million dollars in a tricounty rural area goes a lot further than it does in an urban setting, and it can make a huge impact that’s sustainable. It’s also fascinating to see the leaders and changemakers in rural areas who have tons of energy but lack those resources to get it done. When they get that last piece, you see them have the ability to do amazing things on behalf of their community.
"I think helping to keep rural on the radar as part of the national conversation is key. It’s an election year, and I want to make sure we aren’t forgotten about."
– Kevin Bennett

What about the future of rural health energizes and excites you?

I feel like rural health could lead the way on sustainable, impactful change. We can do pilot programs, alternative payment models, new workforce types – we can test these things in rural because they’re resilient, they’re creative, and we can see what works. There’s the opportunity for the United States to learn from rural and to innovate because of them. I think rural far too often has gotten just the scraps or the hand-medowns, as they make policies that work for urban areas but not for rural. I think there’s an opportunity to flip that script and let rural lead the way.

What I love about rural communities in particular is that they are so creative and resilient but also so interested in changing their communities for the better. I think great things happen because of that.

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