Rural Scholars involved in the Rural Renewal Initiative in a field near Frederick, Oklahoma. (Photo by Gabby Barber)

When the hospital in Frederick in southwestern Oklahoma - population 7,500 - closed in 2016, it left the residents in the community and in surrounding areas more than 30 miles from an emergency room.

A research project has been examining whether using tablets placed inside emergency medical services vehicles and connected via the Internet to Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences in Tulsa would help patients get the necessary level of care.

“We were basically looking if telemedicine would be beneficial for people in that area and if it would improve health outcomes of those rural residents since they didn't have access to an emergency center within 30 miles,” said Kynadi Shelby, a student at OSU Center for Health Sciences. “This is really cool how technology has played a role in reducing the gaps in access they have to ERs.”

The project is part of the Rural Renewal Initiative, an interdisciplinary research project at Oklahoma State University that seeks to improve the health of residents of two counties in southwestern Oklahoma: Harmon and Tillman counties. Residents face a set of interrelated difficulties with health, poverty, population decline, and more, Audrey King, assistant director, told the Deesmealz in an interview.

The Rural Renewal Initiative is trying to identify solutions that address those issues.

“The whole mission, vision, and goals of our initiative is to catalyze the renewal of rural communities and places in Oklahoma and globally, specifically through interdisciplinary research,” King said. “It’s also really important to ask that we engage with communities. So we don't do research on communities, we do research with communities. And we also are excited to develop students along the way.”

There are three pillars to the initiative: seed funding for research, rural scholars who study an issue in the communities for a set period of time, and a symposium.

Research projects span the spectrum: from soil moisture monitoring to telemedicine to youth leadership development.

“The idea behind all of these things is what we call a place-based approach,” King said. “So while all rural communities are different and unique, the theory that we are kind of subscribing to at this point in time is that if you're able to help the community in lots of different ways, you can make that place flourish.”

For Shelby, who grew up in Hollis - population around 1,900 - in Harmon County, the opportunity to work with the Rural Renewal Initiative as a Rural Scholar is a personal one.

“It is a persistently impoverished area,” she said of her hometown. “I grew up here so I witnessed firsthand just kind of the lack of access that people in this community have. But the people in rural America are just such great people. They're hardworking and I've always had a calling and a passion to want to one day be someone that can provide resources for people in this community.”

After graduating from high school, she decided to travel several hours to Oklahoma State University and then apply for medical school and hopes to become a general physician in a rural underserved community, similar to Harmon County.

She said she became a rural scholar not only because she wanted to build upon her knowledge, but also to learn what other people thought about rural Oklahoma, the issues facing it, and possible solutions.

“I just kind of take that knowledge that I've gained from now and one day hopefully implement it into my practice as a future physician,” she said. “So I feel like my time as a rural scholar really just gave me such an advantage and equipped me with the knowledge I never would have gotten without this program.”

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