Rural Health Initiative Earns National Award

Program Wins American Hospital Association Award Focused on Community Health

The Rural Health Initiative, designed to improve the health of people living in rural communities, is one of five programs to win a national award from the American Hospital Association (AHA) that focuses on community health.

The Rural Health Initiative will receive the AHA NOVA at a national health forum and leadership summit in San Francisco on July 21. In addition to ThedaCare and Shawano Medical Center who launched the program, the other hospital-led collaborative efforts being honored include Fitness in the City in Boston; Puff City in Detroit; The Beth Embraces Wellness: An Integrated Approach to Prevention in the Community in Newark, N.J.; and CARE Network in Napa, Calif.

In 2003, ThedaCare and Shawano Medical Center launched the Rural Health Initiative in Shawano County in partnership with the county extension service, the county public health department, and local schools, with regional agribusiness collaborative and financial partners. Last year, Shawano Medical Center became a part of ThedaCare.

As part of the Rural Health Initiative, a nurse makes free house calls to all interested farm families to provide health information, education, referrals to area services and listen to the families’ health concerns, said Rhonda Strebel, executive director of the non-profit program. Earlier this year, the Rural Health Initiative expanded into Outagamie and Waupaca counties.

“I hope the exposure from this honor will show other communities a way that rural health issues can be addressed,” she said. “It’s very exciting and I will love sharing how we have taken healthcare directly to our farmers through cooperative relationships.”

Established in 1993, the AHA NOVA Award recognizes hospitals and health systems for their collaborative efforts toward improving community health. “We are pleased to honor this year’s AHA NOVA winners for the innovative ways they work in the community to improve health and wellness,” said AHA President and CEO Rich Umbdenstock. “Working collaboratively with like-minded organizations, hospitals are helping provide preventive care, disease management, asthma awareness, nutrition counseling and opportunities for physical activity to people where they learn, work and live – bettering lives and building healthier communities.”

ThedaCare CEO and President Dean Gruner, MD, said the health of the nation’s farm families is in crisis since many lack easy access to healthcare providers, don’t have health insurance or have insurance policies with high deductibles that keep them away from regular doctor visits.

“The Rural Health Initiative is a great example of how problems involving healthcare can be resolved when the community comes together with health providers,” Dr. Gruner said. “From the beginning, we worked with the community to develop a plan that would work for them.”

Strebel said the Shawano program was formed after the ThedaCare-led Community Health Action Team (CHAT) took a deep dive into rural healthcare and heard directly from farmers and their families about their concerns. “From out of that, the initiative just grew,” she said.

The idea to take health care directly to the farmers came from the families themselves, Strebel said. “Farmers tend to be isolated and everyone comes to them – the milk truck, the vet, suppliers and more – so it just made sense to go to them,” she said. “Farmers are busy and many of them are committed to their work that they don’t always think about their own health,”

During a first-time visit, the nurse will take blood samples and run a quick set of tests that test cholesterol and glucose levels and measure blood pressure and determine body mass index to determine if the person is overweight. “It’s just like the health risk assessment tests many people receive at work as part of their insurance coverage,” Strebel said.

The nurse goes over the results and then talks about basic health issues, such as getting more exercise, safety issues, eating healthfully and more. If the tests reveal any concerns, such as high blood pressure, the nurse helps them connect with a medical provider if they don’t have one they regularly see. “Since the lab work has already been done, it doesn’t need to be redone at the doctor’s office and they won’t incur those costs,” Strebel said.

Talking about health issues around the kitchen table is a real difference-maker, Strebel said.  “We can pull something out of the cabinet and go over the labels on food or talk about recipes. It’s very impactful,” she said. “When we first started out, I remember riding with the milk truckers to meet farmers and introduce them to our program. It’s amazing how much we’ve grown.”

For more information about the Rural Health Initiative, please visit

The American Hospital Association (AHA) is the national organization that represents and serves all types of hospitals, health care networks, and their patients and communities. Close to 5,000 hospitals, health care systems, networks, other providers of care and 42,000 individual members come together to form the AHA.  Founded in 1898, the AHA provides education for health care leaders and is a source of information on health care issues and trends.  For more information, visit the AHA Web site at

ThedaCare™ is a community health system consisting of five hospitals: Appleton Medical Center, Theda Clark Medical Center, New London Family Medical Center, Shawano Medical Center, and Riverside Medical Center in Waupaca. ThedaCare also includes ThedaCare Physicians, ThedaCare Behavioral Health, ThedaCare At Work, and ThedaCare at Home. ThedaCare is the largest employer in Northeast Wisconsin with more than 6,175 employees. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.