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Award-winning WVU Extension Service program bolsters rural healthcare recruitment

Three murals in Keyser featuring a musical theme on the side of building

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – It could be argued West Virginians in rural communities need more prevalent access to healthcare and medical professionals — winding mountain roads and rivers can make it difficult for many to make appointments and maintain an active relationship with primary-care providers. Many small communities may not have a physician to provide routine guidance on simple, but serious, chronic ailments.

But, a partnership with the West Virginia University Extension Service and the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources has led to a program that works with communities to make their towns more attractive to physicians and their families in hopes they’ll put down permanent roots.

The program is called West Virginia Recruitable Communities, and it recently garnered recognition and won two awards from national community development organizations this summer. The National Association of Community Development Extension Professionals awarded it the excellence in community development team award, and the Community Development Society gave it the innovative program award.

Originally, the program was largely observational, experts would come in and make recommendations about what should change and how communities could get there. While the information and insight was valuable, the program was rebooted in 2015 to be more collaborative — that’s when significant results followed.

Michael Dougherty, professor and the community planning and development specialist for the WVU Extension Service, explained how the approach changed and how a team comprised of himself, Daniel Eades, associate professor and rural development specialist for the WVU Extension Service, and Ginger Harmon of the West Virginia DHHR transformed the project.

“It became a collaboration in all phases and all the partners bought in equally,” he said. “Our expertise still guided the original assessments, but we really only used that as a jumping-off point to talk with all the community leaders and residents and we all came up with achievable plans. Then the DHHR was able offer logistical support, worked with residents between meetings and provided seed grants for dreams to become reality.”

In 2015 to 2016, Keyser was the first place that used this approach, where they benefitted from downtown beautification, plans for a gateway mural and equipment needed for health-oriented outdoor events. They’ve been able to recruit 11 new physicians since participating in the program.

Williamson participated in 2016 to 2017, and they’ve seen 10 new physicians move to the area after adding increased visibility and promotion of a local marathon and a yearly comic convention. Harrisville was this year’s participant, and as work wraps up, Dougherty anticipates news of more success will come.

“When looking at these communities, the effects are more than getting new doctors to town. Residents get to reap the benefits of improvements not only in the now, but for the future as well,” he said. “The program’s recent success boils down to the relationships between community leaders that we’ve fostered along, and in turn, they’ve worked more closely with town residents for improvements that everyone is invested in — that’s a critical development in driving these towns, and West Virginia, forward.”