by Cyna Mirzai-
The Virginia Rural Health Association, a non-profit health advocacy group serving people living in rural Virginia, is fighting against racism and inequity in the healthcare system.
An affiliate of the National Rural Health Association and with over 1,000 members statewide, the VRHA states a mission to “improve the health of rural Virginians through education, advocacy, and fostering cooperative partnerships.” This mission is especially present in their efforts to reduce health inequity.
The Virginia Department of Health defines health inequity as “disparities in health that are a result of systemic, avoidable and unjust social and economic policies and practices that create barriers to opportunity.”
There are many health disparities that affect rural Virginia, including a lack of primary and emergency care, barriers in access to health insurance and a mortality rate that is 30% higher than urban areas, says Beth O’Connor, the executive director of the VRHA. She explains these disparities are found across all levels of the healthcare system, especially among non-white communities.
“We still see disparities in people of color when it comes to being accepted into medical schools, in how they are treated throughout their educational process as both students and residents and in how they are treated as employers,” O’Connor said.
According to the VRHA website, health disparities for black citizens in Virginia include higher rates of diabetes, hypertension and obesity. Black women in Virginia are also three times more likely to die after giving birth than white women.
A 2021 study also shows that rural black Americans are more likely to have risk factors for severe COVID-19, influencing their increased risk of hospitalization.
As an advocacy group, the VRHA works to address racism in various facets. In 2015, their board of directors made a commitment to address multiculturalism and rural health. Since then, the organization has increased diversity in its membership and included health equity topics in its educational programs.
While the VRHA is currently focusing on addressing health inequities in regards to race, Danielle Montague, a program coordinator for the VRHA, hopes people from all kinds of identity groups receive health equity.
“It is important that we educate people about what equity really means,” Montague said. “I often remind people that equity and racism are not synonymous. Equity is actually about making sure everybody’s needs are met, whether it is in regard to their race, gender, sexual orientation or a disability.”
The VRHA is continually working on new advancements towards health equity. They are currently in the process of applying for a grant from the CDC to uncover the inequities in maternal health in Danville, Virginia. They hope to hire and train doulas to work with pregnant women, as Danville has one of the highest populations of non-white citizens in rural Virginia, and yet their maternal mortality rate is the highest in the state.