State Department of Health releases rural health report

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JEFFERSON CITY- The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services released its latest report on rural health on Friday, detailing the leading health issues rural Missourians dealt with in the past year. The report also looks at socioeconomic factors affecting rural Missourians' health.

Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Department of Health, said rural health is a "huge priority" for both his department and Gov. Mike Parson, who hosted the first ever Governor's Rural Health Care Summit in 2018.

"We think one of the keys to making a diagnosis, to trying to find solutions, is having good data," Williams said.

The report features some of the main health issues affecting Missouri residents in rural areas, including the leading causes of death in rural counties. Along with those issues, the report details solutions and things people can do to prevent major diseases.

Williams said the goal is to not only treat disease, but to prevent it in the first place.

"If you start with that, and get people healthier in the same time that you're improving healthcare access, that's going to get us where we want to get to," Williams said.

One major aspect of healthcare the department is working on is maternal health. According to the report, between 2007 and 2017, pregnancy related deaths were 47% higher for rural communities than for urban ones.

Of the ten counties with the highest rate of infant deaths in the state, nine of them are rural.

Despite these statistics, Williams said Missourians overall are getting healthier. According to the United Health Foundation, Missouri ranked 38th in the nation in terms of healthy states, an increase from last year when Missouri ranked 40th.

Williams said he thinks that ranking will continue to rise.

"I think that's reflective of the whole state, but also very much rural [areas]," he said. "If we're getting better, it's probably because we're getting better in our rural areas."

One of the major things Williams said he wants to focus on is improving access to hospitals in rural areas, as well as getting more doctors to practice in rural areas.

Another important issue for the department is improving healthcare finance, especially with an election year coming up.

"We have to get our Medicaid program in the best shape it can be," Williams said. "We need to make it robust. We need to improve it, frankly."

Medicaid expansion is likely to be a topic in state races in 2020.

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