UMN researchers examine rural health disparities

Two University groups are seeking to combat rural health disparities among racially diverse populations.

Gwiwon Jason Nam

Two University of Minnesota teams are investigating racial health disparities among rural populations.

The University’s Rural Health Research Center and the Memory Keepers Medical Discovery Team on the Duluth campus lead projects to examine rural health issues among diverse groups. One-fifth of rural Americans are people of color, according to census data.

RHRC is focused on illuminating disparities for rural populations and advancing health equity in those communities. They found rural residents experience worse health on a population level than urban residents.

“Most research on rural health examines rural-urban differences in health and health care,” said Carrie Henning-Smith, deputy director of the University’s RHRC and assistant professor in the School of Public Health. “However, we know that there is considerable diversity among rural residents.”

The team recently examined rural health and health care differences between people of color and indigenous residents versus white residents.

“We’ve done county-level analyses to identify differences in premature death, an important marker of population health, comparing counties by what racial or ethnic group is the majority population,” Henning-Smith said.

Their paper, released in March, showed that rural counties with more people of color experience higher levels of premature death. Henning-Smith said their discovery “should serve as a call for more resources and attention to those counties with the highest rates of premature death.”

RHRC will next analyze the National Health Interview Survey, facilitated by the Centers for Disease Control, to identify individual-level differences in preventative healthcare usage by race and ethnicity among rural residents.

“We hope that our research helps to remind people that there is rich, deep and historical diversity in rural America and that work on racial and ethnic health equity should not be limited to urban spaces,” Henning-Smith said.

The University Medical School’s medical discovery team works address issues of health equity specific to rural American Indian populations in Minnesota. The group, which is located on the Duluth campus, is currently focusing on dementia and diabetes in American Indian communities.

“We … have started to work on our mission to address health disparities through impactful research,” said Kristen Jacklin, associate director of the medical discovery team and professor in the Duluth campus’ Department of Family Medicine and BioBehavioral Health.  

For their current project, the team engages with indigenous communities in Red Lake, Minnesota and Grand Portage, Minnesota and is seeking a third tribal community to work with. Indigenous populations are disproportionately affected by Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, Jacklin said.

“We are really only now beginning to plan for research in rural communities in the north,” said Wayne Warry, director of rural health initiatives and professor in the Department of Family Medicine and BioBehavioral Health. “The rates for most diseases are higher in rural areas and higher in American Indian communities.”

He believes this is due to the complex interaction of a variety of social factors and poorer access to healthcare due to geography and distance.

“The discussions we have had with the tribal communities and service providers in the northern rural regions suggest that dementia is a growing concern,” Jacklin said. “There is also the recognition of the need for research on the topic to inform the development and delivery of appropriate services and care.”