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MOLINE — On Monday morning, U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Moline, convened a roundtable discussion at the UIC College of Nursing-Quad Cities campus of some of the unique challenges of providing rural health care.

The hourlong discussion included a presentation about rural health care as well as a listening session with nurses and educators.

About a quarter of Illinois residents live in areas where there is a shortage of rural health-care professionals, according to materials from the school. Research suggests that rural populations experience higher incidences of certain diseases and disabilities, higher mortality rates, lower life expectancies and greater rates of pain.

The problems are compounded by a shortage of doctors and nurses. To improve patient outcomes in less-served places, UIC’s College of Nursing launched a rural nursing concentration in 2017 (known as “r-nursing”) to prepare students to work in rural areas. 

“One of the things that’s always been a mission of ours, and the reason we have campuses outside of Chicago, is to prepare advanced-practice nurses where they live throughout the state,” said Kathleen J.H. Sparbel, clinical associate professor and director of the Quad-Cities campus. “We get a lot of people from smaller, rural communities who want to be providers in those communities. It helps to expand the level of education throughout the state, rather than needing to be in Chicago.”

The College of Nursing has campuses in Chicago, Moline, Rockford, Peoria, Springfield and Urbana, all of which offer a rural nursing track as part of the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree. The r-nursing curriculum includes eight courses, typically spread over four years, on rural health-care issues and practice, according to materials from UIC.

Bustos asked the small handful of attendees for their candid thoughts on life and work as a nurse, particularly in rural areas.

“There’s a huge need,” said Melissa Bradley, a nurse with almost two decades of experience who recently earned an advanced degree at UIC-QC. As part of her coursework, Bradley, who grew up on a local farm, worked at Riverdale Elementary School in Port Byron.

“In an elementary-school setting, in a rural community, being so far out from a local hospital was an eye opener for me,” Bradley said. Because of a lack of funding, the school nurse had to pay for medical equipment out of her own pocket, Bradley said. “The funding just wasn’t there in order to get the kids the medicine they need.”

Mike Tapia, a bedside nurse of eight years who has a year left toward a degree at UIC-QC, has seen the job change over his career.

“We need more of us to have good outcomes to do a proper job,” Tapia, who grew up in Taylor Ridge, said. “It’s been tough. As the years go on, the overall trend is to do more with less.”

Rural health care is hampered not only by a lack of practitioners, but also by a lack of infrastructure. In rural areas, access to reliable broadband remains uncommon — a problem for communities already distant from health care provisions.

“Rural broadband is actually a big issue for tele-health,” or the delivery of health care services remotely by technology, Bustos said. “We have communities that would like to use tele-health because it’s harder to find practitioners to go to certain areas. Well, you have to have rural broadband.”

Bustos, whose grandmother was a nurse, was a co-sponsor of HR 4232, a bipartisan bill awarding grant funding to broadband projects in rural areas.

“Rural health is a priority for us,” Bustos said. “There are very few Democrats who serve rural areas in the whole country. Since we (Democrats) are in the majority, I can be a lead on a lot of these bills. And it’s not that hard to find bipartisan support.”

According to materials from the UIC College of Nursing, about three-quarters of graduates from UIC’s campuses in Peoria, the Quad-Cities and Rockford remain in their respective areas after graduation.

Nationally, the field of nursing faces many structural challenges, including an aging workforce and a shortage of advanced-practice nurses and nursing educators.

“One of the issues we see in rural areas is that you have to drive long distances or that you don’t have a lot of accessibility,” Sparbel said. “It’s hard to provide for our families if we can’t ensure their health.”

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