Left photo: WVSOM staff member Haylee Heinsberg addresses conference attendees from behind a lectern. Right photo: Rich Sutphin, executive director of the West Virginia Rural Health Association, speaks with health care professionals and students.

WVSOM hosts 30th West Virginia Rural Health Conference

More than 200 members of the state’s health care professions gathered Oct. 19-21 on the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine (WVSOM) campus for the 30th annual West Virginia Rural Health Conference, with 60 more people joining the event virtually.

The theme of this year’s conference was “Preparing Our Workforce and Empowering Rural West Virginia.” The event gave health professionals a chance to network and earn continuing education credits.

Rich Sutphin, executive director of 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 elevate the voices of the people doing the work on the ground,” he said. “It helps create connections to facilitate better outcomes and better access to health care in West Virginia, and it’s a low-cost way for rural providers and organizations to receive continuing education. Everyone enjoyed getting back together in person and networking, something we haven’t been able to do for over two years.”

Participants attended a series of plenary sessions and could choose from concurrent sessions in four tracks: clinical; innovation; leadership; and diversity, equity and inclusion. In addition to a number of sessions devoted to workforce-related topics, other areas of emphasis included substance use disorder, recovery and engaging business leaders in improving the health of West Virginians.

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

“The community health worker profession works really well in this state because we’re known for helping our neighbors, for reaching out when there’s a disaster,” Heinsberg said. “In West Virginia, we have a lot of community health workers who are serving in faith-based organizations and who volunteer their time.”

In remarks that opened the conference, James W. Nemitz, Ph.D., WVSOM’s president, spoke about the long tradition of Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine in West Virginia and about the school’s achievements during its 50-year history.

“D.O.s have been in this state for more than 100 years,” he said. “Some of them participated in the formation of this school. They had the vision to see that we needed more doctors in rural areas, and 50 years later we’ve accomplished that. We’ve populated the small towns and cities of West Virginia, and of rural America, with physicians.”

Plenary sessions included a panel of health professionals discussing rural practice, including Kim Tieman, vice president and program director for the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation and a member of the WVSOM Foundation Board of Directors; an exploration of implicit bias led by Shante Ellis, M.Ed., racial equity and inclusion director at YWCA Charleston; a discussion on leveraging multisector partnerships to improve rural health featuring 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 ways his organization can help rural health leaders strengthen their leadership skills.

In the conference’s student poster symposium, seven of 14 posters were by WVSOM students. In a separate podium presentation session, second-year WVSOM student Samantha DeMartino spoke about the school’s incorporation of an elective course called Exercise Is Medicine, which aims to train students to expand the use of physical exercise as a primary treatment in medicine. Earlier this year, WVSOM became the only osteopathic medical school recognized by the national Exercise Is Medicine initiative for its efforts to create a culture of wellness on campus.

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

“In our public health organizations, the most important asset we have is our workforce,” Koester said. “We had nurses who were giving guidance on isolation and quarantine, and would go to local football games and no one would talk to them because they were angry. But it wasn’t all negative: We also had groups that were bringing lunches to their local health department staff. The ways communities responded to support public health was phenomenal.”