Remembering Gary Hart

Center for Rural Health director was a leading researcher in rural primary care

Brad Gibbens, (left) Mary Wakefield, Gary Hart. Photo courtesy of UND Center for Rural Health.

Brad Gibbens, (left) Mary Wakefield, Gary Hart. Image courtesy of UND Center for Rural Health.

UND – and rural America – lost a passionate healthcare advocate last week.

L. Gary Hart, director of UND’s Center for Rural Health and professor of population health at the School of Medicine & Health Sciences, passed away April 13 after a recent illness. He was 72.

“Gary was one of the preeminent rural primary care researchers in the country,” said Dr. Joshua Wynne, interim president and dean of the School of Medicine & Health Sciences. “Over the course of 40 years, he directed two Centers of Rural Health in Arizona and North Dakota, and two rural health research centers in Washington and North Dakota. He was a respected rural health expert and advocate. During his tenure at UND, the Center for Rural Health grew in size, impact, and service to rural North Dakota. Staffing grew by 30 percent and funding support from grants, contracts, and the like increased by 25 percent.”

Hart came to UND in 2010 to direct the Center for Rural Health, where he guided more than 50 faculty and staff in their mission to improve health opportunities and outcomes for rural Americans. Before joining UND, he served as director and endowed professor at the Rural Health Office in the University of Arizona’s College of Public Health. He also served on the advisory committee of the university’s Arizona Area Health Education Center.

He had a large variety of research interests, including rural health, health workforce, access to healthcare, rural policy, and healthcare for the elderly, infants, and underserved. His work was published in professional journals in medical geography, family medicine, health education, health workforce, and rural health research and policy.

Hart was the recipient of 107 grants, published 160 peer-reviewed journal articles, including three in the prestigious journal Health Affairs and two in the New England Journal of Medicine, and delivered 149 invited national presentations at conferences and meetings.

A significant contribution

“Gary made a significant contribution to our understanding of rural health in this country,” said Brad Gibbens, who was recently named interim director of the Center for Rural Health. “He was the leading researcher in rural primary care and influenced and mentored many. I think of Gary, too, as the father of rural definitions. He actually created the way we define what is or is not rural. These definitions are used to help determine where the federal dollars flow. He had his Ph.D. in medical geography, so he had the background to use demography and mapping to outline rural healthcare, and this tied into his research into primary care.

“He was just a heck of a nice guy,” Gibbens continued. “He was kind and considerate and really cared for his staff and colleagues. He would talk up the skills and success of his staff, but was way too modest to brag about his success. And he was very successful, but he didn’t tell anyone. He was a good, decent man. We will miss him.”

“Gary made enormous contributions to rural health research and earned a national and international reputation as an innovative and meticulous researcher,” said Eric Larson, who worked with Hart for 19 years at the University of Washington’s Rural Health Research Center, which Hart directed for 18 years. “Gary was passionate about improving health care for rural people, and especially interested in using research to address a huge range of rural health care policy problems, including rural workforce supply, access to OB care, and improving rural hospitals. Gary was incredibly generous with his time and his ideas. He was always overflowing with research ideas! Over the years he coached and mentored scores of rural health researchers, many of whom went on to distinguished research careers all over the United States. He leaves behind a legacy of pioneering rural health services scholarship, generosity, and kindness. I’m really going to miss him.”

Hart graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a bachelor of science degree in geography and a secondary school teaching certification from the University of Utah in 1973, where he also earned a master of science degree in geography. In 1985, he graduated from the Doctoral Opportunities Program in the Department of Health Services at the University of Washington School of Public Health. He earned his doctorate in medical geography in 1985, also from the University of Washington.

During his lengthy academic career, he served as a scientific programmer, research analyst and programmer, research scientist, and project director. He spent much of his career at the University of Washington and University of Arizona. At Washington, he directed the Center for Health Workforce Studies from 1998-2007.

“Gary was very smart, but also very humble and considerate,” said Gibbens. “You don’t see that every day.”