More than 80 educational leaders, health care professionals and policymakers came together Friday to create community-engaged research and a policy center focused on advancing health equity and well-being in the Central Valley.

The Rural Health Equity and Learning Collaborative held at BC's Delano campus featured panels on a variety of health and educational issues prevalent across the Central Valley — air quality, valley fever, substance use and educational attainment.

"The event by itself was really the launch of a very big problem that we’re taking on to solve collectively and that is looking at issues of rural poverty, rural health equity and chronic illnesses," said BC President Sonya Christian.

HEAL features four academic hubs — BC, UC Merced, Fresno State and UC San Francisco Fresno Center — and spans six counties — Kern, Kings, Merced, Tulare, Fresno and Madera.

Some of the featured moderators and panelists at Friday's event included Christian, U.S. Rep. TJ Cox, CEO of Kern Medical Center Russell Judd, Julianne McCall, science officer from Gov. Newsom's Office of Planning and Research, and educators from the four educational institutions.

Judd discussed the formation of the Valley Fever Institute and how elected officials, health care providers and educational institutions brought their resources to the table in order to take on valley fever — an example of a focus HEAL can create.

"I think one of the key takeaways was the power that comes with the different roles that education providers, elected officials and other government organizations provide. They play a different role, but when they’re unified it makes the process go much better," Judd explained. "With valley fever, the research we’re partnering with the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and partners at UCLA enhances research and maybe develops better treatments and maybe even a cure ... working with elected officials provides funding."

"When everyone comes together, we’ll get better results," he added.

As discussions continue, BC officials said critical areas of focus for the HEAL collaborative include:

  • Economic and workforce development: Seven million Californians live in Health Professional Shortage Areas, a federal designation for counties experiencing shortfalls of primary care, dental care or mental health care providers. The next decade is projected to have a shortage of 4,100 primary care clinicians and will only have two-thirds of the psychiatrists necessary to meet projected needs
  • Education: Opportunities to develop and scale regionally high-demand, high-wage pathways in education and health sciences are vital and meeting the educational needs of rural communities will take focused and concerted efforts. By bringing together the four educational institutions, they will provide research and educational programs to address needs unique to residents of rural communities
  • Equity: According to the U.S Census Bureau, one in five Americans live in rural America, and 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product is generated in non-metropolitan counties. However, federal policy has left many rural communities behind. Community-driven solutions, emerging research, policy change and dialog are tools to increase health equity and access for rural residents.

"If we can collaborate and create the policy structures that support issues rather than have them as obstacles, that would be helpful for the communities we serve here," Christian said.

The college is planning on holding another event in March 2020 that will be taking discussions to the national stage.

Ema Sasic can be reached at 661-395-7392. Follow her on Twitter: @ema_sasic.

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