Q&A: Whitney Zahnd on rural health research, advocacy, and engagement

Published on November 7, 2023

Whitney Zahnd

Whitney Zahnd is an assistant professor of health management and policy in the University of Iowa College of Public Health. She recently answered a few questions about her interests in rural health topics and research, the rewards of working with students, and her new leadership role in a statewide rural health organization.

What sparked your interest in rural health issues?

I grew up on a corn and soybeans farm outside of Champaign, Illinois. Champaign isn’t rural, but my house was on a rural mail route, so my address was literally rural! I grew up drinking water from a well on our farm. As a farm family, we purchased health insurance independently, which was more expensive than it was for those whose employers provided it. My upbringing in many ways felt “rural.”

Later, when I was working on my master’s degree in community health at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, I took a few classes with Dr. Susan Farner. Dr. Farner also grew up on a farm in rural central Illinois and worked for many years overseeing laboratory services at a rural hospital before getting her PhD in her 50s and going into academia. I loved her classes, and she was very passionate about rural health. She taught about the strength of rural, but also the resources and workforce needed to improve rural health. Her teaching both inspired and resonated with me. When I started looking for a job after completing my master’s degree, I ended up in a position supporting rural health research at a medical school. That’s led the way to the work I’ve been fortunate to do over the last 16+ years. I owe that to Dr. Farner for piquing my interest in rural health.

Your research focuses on rural health challenges such as cancer disparities and access to care. What are some of the main factors that contribute to rural health disparities in Iowa and the U.S.?

The are three main factors that contribute to rural health disparities—demographics, geography, and policy. Demographically, rural populations, in general, are older than urban, which means that there tend to be higher rates of chronic conditions, greater need for health care, etc.

Demographically and geographically, rural populations are, by definition, smaller, but also more geographically isolated. People in rural areas live further from health care services, which can be a challenge when people have cancer, for example, and need to get chemo multiple days a week over multiple weeks.

On the policy side, many of our healthcare policies have been developed as “one size fits all” and haven’t taken into account challenges of economies of scale with rural healthcare settings, which makes it more financially challenging. Sometimes, these policies exacerbate the closures of rural pharmacies, hospitals, etc.

Can you give a little background on the Student Association for Rural Health and your involvement with the organization?

The Student Association for Rural Health (SARH) in the College of Public Health officially launched on National Rural Health Day in November 2022 as a graduate student organization focused on rural health and health care. A handful of MHA and MPH students, in particular, have been instrumental in taking all the necessary logistical steps to be a registered student organization as well as to plan and coordinate events.

The association typically has one or two events a month that has included hosting panel discussions from people working in rural health, representing the college at “Public Health Day on the Hill” in Des Moines, participating in the Iowa Rural Health Association conference, and other activities. The College of Public Health was very generous in sponsoring registration for the students to attend the Iowa Rural Health Association conference. In late October, the group volunteered at a health fair at a nursing home in Kalona. This academic year, the association’s leadership has been active in making connections with other health-related colleges at the university.

It has been an absolute privilege to support the association as its faculty advisor. The students have taken the initiative in planning and leading events and reaching out to new students. My role is really just to support them however I can—connecting them to people in the rural health space, offering guidance when needed, giving feedback on their already great ideas, and providing encouragement.

You recently were named president of the Iowa Rural Health Association (IRHA) board. What are a few of your goals in this new role?

I’m honored to be elected to this role with IRHA. We recently held our first stand-alone conference since 2019 where we had more than 100 rural health advocates from around the state in attendance. I want to build on the momentum from that event to grow and strengthen our organization. One of the main goals that I have is to grow our membership and boost our engagement with current members, including stronger engagement with students.

This summer we received grant funding from the Delta Dental of Iowa Foundation for strategic planning. In part through that funding and in addition to growing and strengthening our membership, I want our association to identify and build strategic partnerships with other organizations to address our state’s rural health needs. Additionally, I want to strengthen our organization’s capacity to be a “go-to” rural health resource—whether that be advocacy, information, training, or technical assistance.

What do you enjoy most about working with students, and how do you hope to prepare future rural health care leaders through your teaching and mentoring?

Working with students inside and outside the classroom, without question, is my favorite part of my job! I have the privilege of teaching Introduction to Healthcare Organization and Policy (IHOP, as we call it), which is the core intro course that nearly all of our first-year graduate students take across our degree programs. As much as I enjoy teaching, I particularly enjoy working with students one-on-one through advising and mentoring. It’s a joy to see them develop professionally, academically, and personally throughout their graduate programs. I love getting to see an MHA student who I had in IHOP go off to their administrative internship after their first year in the program, then return to share about their professional growth and how they’ve applied what they’ve learned in the first year of their program. It’s also both fun and fulfilling to have discussions with doctoral students about their research interests and see how they develop their independent research questions.

Regardless of whether students go into rural health care or study rural health, my goal is that they have an understanding and appreciation of the nuances of rural health care and both the strengths and challenges of rural communities. I want students who are interested in rural health to be well-equipped with the knowledge and tools to lead in rural health settings or to do rural health research, but I also want students who may not have that interest to have the knowledge necessary to interact with rural health care settings and communities. My main goal, though, to borrow from Adam Grant, is to help students ensure they are following their values with whatever career path they choose.

Photo by Joey Loboda