UND: Lifeline for rural America

Rural health isn’t just another issue at the University of North Dakota. It’s a Grand Challenge, meaning a top priority

The University of North Dakota is proud to have experts such as Maridee Shogren (right), a clinical professor in the College of Nursing & Professional Disciplines, on the front lines of the battle against opioid addiction, which is a major concern across rural America. Shogren’s work with pregnant and new mothers, who are recovering from opioid-use disorder, is one of many ongoing rural health initiatives at UND. Photo by Shawna Schill.

Located in the heart of rural America, the University of North Dakota (UND) is an authority on health concerns plaguing the nation’s most underserved regions, and a leader in providing solutions that make a difference.

That national focus starts with the Center for Rural Health (CRH), housed in the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences. For more than 40 years, the CRH and its myriad national programs have been combining resources with knowledge to strengthen the health of people in rural regions and tribal communities.

Maridee Shogren

“We find problems, we come up with solutions and we get the money to address those problems,” said Brad Gibbens, deputy director of the CRH.

Another big resource is the “Rural Health Information Hub.” Housed at UND, the hub (RHIhub) has been the nation’s information center for all things related to rural health and human services for the past 18 years.

“That really positioned UND as the go-to place for rural information for people across the United States, from policymakers in Washington, D.C., to individuals in Alaska who might be interested in rural policy, new rural research findings, etc.,” said Dr. Mary Wakefield, a former CRH director and member of President Biden’s health advisory cabinet, about the RHIhub. “It was a major coup for the University.”

For these and many other reasons, rural health isn’t just another issue at UND. It’s a priority. In fact, helping rural America, with all of its unique health and social issues, is built into our strategic goals, as one of several defined “Grand Challenges” that the we’re tackling head on.

Drug addiction, specifically opioid addiction, is one of the biggest health and social concerns currently facing much of rural America. UND is proud to have experts such as Maridee Shogren, a clinical professor in the College of Nursing & Professional Disciplines, on the front lines of the battle against opioid addiction. Her program, Don’t Quit the Quit , part of a $10-million initiative of the national nonprofit Foundation for Opioid Response Efforts, supports pregnant and postpartum women in rural America who are in recovery from opioid-use disorder.

Thomasine Heitkamp

Helping rural America cope with mental health trauma, which has increased amid the COVID-19 pandemic, is another major initiative for UND.  So big that the University has teamed with one of America’s leading healthcare providers, Sanford Health, to form the new Behavioral Health Bridge.  The initiative “bridges the rural divide by bringing expertise to places with little access to behavioral healthcare services. It’s done through a series of user-friendly online modules, rife with scientific and clinically valid information. 

UND experts also use technology to work directly with behavioral health professionals to provide them with the updated skills needed to cope with rural America’s unique social issues. The Zoom-based seminars, conducted in conjunction with the Mountain Plains Mental Health Technology Transfer Center (MHTTC), draw in viewers by the thousands — as teachers, psychologists and others across a six-state region — tune in to learn about advances in mental health treatments and best practices.

UND Distinguished Professor of Social Work Thomasine Heitkamp, the principal investigator on the $3.8 million Mountain Plains center grant, says her team combines research, training and technical assistance to help professionals better identify mental health crises in their rural communities.

The onset of the COVID-19 was the impetus for the UND-Mount Plains project, Heitkamp said. As the pandemic took hold, she started getting calls from providers who were concerned about what they were seeing in their communities. So Heitkamp and her team did what UND does all the time for rural America — they delivered a solution.

“COVID created such a layer of complexity,” Heitkamp said. “And I just felt like UND and the MHTTC team had such a good capacity to respond.”

SIM-ND is a statewide, mobile education system that uses high-fidelity human patient simulators to train pre-hospital and hospital personnel. UND archive photo.

But it’s not only about telehealth and Web-based delivery. UND has the wherewithal to take its health expertise on the road. Under the leadership of the School of Medicine & Health Sciences’ Simulation Center, UND also has partnered with rural hospitals to bring medical simulation education to underserved regions. SIM-ND, as it’s known, is an education system on wheels that uses high-fidelity human patient simulators to train ambulance and hospital personnel.

UND already is recognized as the nation’s No. 1 producer of American Indian physicians. The new Indigenous Health Ph.D. program takes that legacy and expands on it by instilling the next generations of healthcare administrators with a deep understanding of and appreciation for Indigenous health issues. Photo by Shawna Schill.

Last but certainly not least is UND’s commitment to Indigenous populations and to tribal health challenges across the nation, and nowhere is this focus more evident than in our First in the World doctoral program in Indigenous Health.  The program was launched just last year by Dr. Don Warne, director of the Indians Into Medicine and Master of Public Health programs at UND and a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. UND already is recognized as the nation’s No. 1 producer of American Indian physicians. The new Indigenous Health Ph.D. program takes that legacy and expands on it by instilling the next generations of healthcare administrators with a deep understanding of and appreciation for Indigenous health issues.

Courses are taught by faculty in population health and family & community medicine, along with 10 Indigenous health scholars at the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences.  Warne believes the program is opening up limitless opportunities to expand research, grant funding, scholarship and discovery at UND in the area of Indigenous health.

“There’s nothing else like it in the world,” Warne says.

And suffice it to say, there’s nothing else like UND’s overall dedication to bettering the health and wellbeing of all people in rural America.