Above: Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announces the state will fund $8.25 million for the Center over the next 10 years. PHOTO COURTESY ETSU
By Scott Robertson
Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced July 16 the funding of a new Center for Rural Health Research to be housed at the East Tennessee State University College of Public Health and directed by Dr. Randy Wykoff, public health dean. The governor pledged the state budget would include $1.5 million for the first year and $750,000 for the center for the next nine years. That gift was more than matched by Ballad Health, when Chairman and CEO Alan Levine announced a $15 million matching gift to the center over the next 10 years.
Lee said ETSU was the perfect place for the center because of the unique make-up of the region. “There are multiple cities, a significant number of rural communities – when you come together and you look at this region as a region, we see opportunity that I think is underutilized and untapped. What that means is there is a great deal of hope for prosperity in this region in ways we haven’t seen before. I have a strong belief in that and hope for it, and a strong commitment from my administration.”
That $22+ million in total funding could amount to seed money for the center if grant applications are successful over the coming decade, Levine said. “(The funding we announced today) is funding for infrastructure. The real benefit from an economic perspective is Dr. Wykoff is going to be out there competing for external grants all over the world. That’s the benefit of this center – in getting partnerships with other universities and other systems. When we go and start competing for competitive grants from the National Science Foundation the National Institute of Health, private grants, it could be tens or hundreds of millions of dollars brought into this region for the purpose of funding various studies and various initiatives. So, the things Ballad is doing will generate interest from outside parties. Until now we really didn’t have the infrastructure to attract that funding. We’ve now given Dr. Wykoff a vehicle to go out there and proactively compete for those dollars. So, the $22 million is a lot of money, but it could pale in comparison to what we might bring in.
“Everyone benefits from a healthy, educated, drug-free workforce,” Wykoff said. “If you don’t have education and health, you can’t bring in new businesses and you can’t grow the businesses that you have. Prosperity, health and education are inseparable.
“Poverty is associated with factors like rates of smoking, more sedentary lifestyle, higher rates of substance abuse. All of those things not only impact health, but they have a cost consequence. That cost consequence is both in health care, but also in terms of employability. So, the more we can improve health in the region, the more we can improve educational outcomes in the region – the more we’ll see great growth in economics, jobs and opportunity in the region.”
Health, education and economic development are the necessary bases needed to grow prosperity in the region, Wykoff said. “You need all three. You can imagine that without education we’re not going to bring in higher-level employment opportunities. Without good health, we’re not. Without those higher-level employment opportunities, we’re not going to have the resources to invest in education and so on. I see our worlds – health, economic development and education – as inexorably intertwined.”
The potential positive effect of the Center on the region was one reason Ballad Health threw its support behind the effort, Levine said. “When you have low unemployment and low workforce participation, you can’t get companies to relocate here. The unemployment rate is as low as it has ever been. So, if Tennessee is going to grow, it’s got to increase its workforce participation. We have to get more people into the workforce, and that’s exactly what Dr. Wykoff is talking about.”
One recent estimate showed around 47,000 northeast Tennesseans who would otherwise be employable outside of workforce participation. Some have addiction problems or education deficits that could be addressed by the work at the Center for Rural Health Research, Levine said. That research will benefit not only this region, but all of Appalachia, and rural America, said ETSU President Dr. Brian Noland. “Appalachia is going to lead in developing solutions to many of the challenges facing our rural communities. This is not a Tennessee problem. It is a national one. I’m pleased that ETSU will lead this academic, research-based effort to solve some of our nation’s most important problems.”
In the past, much research has been done into the crossover relationships of issues including poverty, improper nourishment, illegal drug use and prescription drug abuse. Wykoff said the Center will focus more on how to break the cycles by which these problems continue from generation to generation.
“My top priority is broadly looking at the issue of intergenerational cycles,” Wykoff said. “If you’re born into poverty, you tend to stay in poverty. Your kids’ educational level tends to reflect their parents’ educational level. Children are exposed to smoking and so on. So, our first question is ‘what do we already know about how to interrupt those intergenerational cycles?’
“We already know that smoking is more common in poverty,” Wykoff said. “I want to know what we can do about it.”
To that end, the Center will be hiring and partnering with individuals and other organizations with expertise in at least one of the intergenerational problem areas affecting rural health.
Wykoff said no specific outcome measures have yet been defined for the Center. “In the short term, I need to look at and hire people who know what can be done to interrupt these cycles. Once we get those folks on board, then we can say, ‘What are the issues we want to deal with first?’ I am fairly optimistic there will be some low-cost things that can be done that can fundamentally change things, but I won’t know specifics until we have completed the research work and the background work.”