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Focus on Rural Health

Dakota Conference on Rural and Public Health Celebrates 30 Years

Longtime statewide gathering of health professionals helps to improve the health of North Dakotans.

By Nikki Massmann on

Dakota conference photo from 1992 Dakota Conference Government Panel, 1992

The Dakota Conference on Rural and Public Health is celebrating a milestone this year: its 30th annual gathering of health professionals from across North Dakota and neighboring states. When the conference began in 1985, hot topics in health discussions were workforce supply and demand, the viability of health organizations such as rural hospitals, and the advent of a new payment system.

“Back then we were getting used to a new payment methodology called prospective payment systems. Fast forward to 2015 and now we’re talking about how we move from volume to value as a payment system,” said Brad Gibbens, MPA, deputy director of the Center for Rural Health.

While some of the themes have remained the same, the Dakota Conference on Rural and Public Health has grown tremendously. It began after identifying a need to pull together providers, educators, researchers, and community members to focus on and discuss rural health issues. The initial year’s conference was held in Bismarck, North Dakota, at the end of February. Dr. Cecil Sheps, a professor from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, delivered the keynote address, and Congressman Byron Dorgan provided a congressional perspective on national healthcare policy. Presentations covered topics such as “The Computer as a Communication Tool for Health Care Providers,” “Wellness: Choice not Chance,” and “Diabetes and the Changing Disease Patterns of American Indians.” The event was successful, and from there became an annual occurrence. In 1994, the conference incorporated public health topics, which was the result of a collaboration with the North Dakota Public Health Association.

“Many of the attendees for the public health conference also attended the rural health conference annually,” said Gibbens. “It’s a great example of working together to eliminate duplication and harnessing resources. For both conferences to be sustainable, they needed to merge. The collaboration has provided an opportunity for rural health and public health to work together, not just on the annual conference, but on projects and initiatives for the improvement of the health of rural North Dakotans.”

The number of attendees has grown over the years as well. Kylie Nissen, senior project coordinator at the Center for Rural Health, said, “Since I started on the planning committee in 2007, I’ve seen attendance grow from about 200 people to consistently being around 350 each year. We have outgrown some of the conference venues where it was originally held.”

Another change is the time of year the conference takes place. For its first 26 years, the Dakota Conference on Rural and Public Health occurred in February or March each year. After the 2011 conference, it moved to be a late spring or early summer event.

“We didn’t cancel the 2011 conference,” said Nissen, “but we had some major interference from a blizzard. It was in Mandan that year, and everyone who did make it pitched in to help somehow. Hotel employees were stranded at their homes due to the road conditions, so conference attendees were vacuuming floors. One of our planning committee members even went out in the blizzard and helped change the sign lettering of the hotel to state that the conference was still taking place.”

Attendees know that they will take information back to their communities that they can implement to improve rural health and wellness right at home.

Lynette Dickson, MS, RD, LRD, associate director at the Center for Rural Health, said, “Even with the uncooperative weather, we still had quite a few attendees that year. To me, it really speaks to the dedication North Dakotans have to the conference and the value they place on it. Attendees know that they will take information back to their communities that they can implement to improve rural health and wellness right at home. It’s such a great opportunity to learn from each other and work collaboratively. Not even a classic North Dakota spring blizzard could keep everyone from attending.”

The conference provides attendees with continuing education units (CEUs) for various health professions. Nurses, physicians, dietitians, public health professionals, and social workers have been able to receive CEUs. “This year is the first that we’re able to offer CEUs for emergency medical services certifications,” said Nissen. “It is one more way that the conference has expanded and continues to grow.”

“It’s also an economical way to receive continuing education credits,” said Dickson. “Many times, health professionals have to travel out of state for continuing ed. Dakota Conference provides the CEUs at no extra cost to attendees, plus the travel costs are significantly less than if you had to travel out of state for a conference.”

The Dakota Conference on Rural and Public Health has had many memorable moments since 1985.

“The gubernatorial debate during the 1992 conference is a favorite memory of mine,” said Gibbens. “All of the candidates attended to discuss rural and public health issues. It was right before the primary election, so it wasn’t a typical panel discussion. A full debate occurred that year.”

“There isn’t one moment that sticks out for me, but rather the dedication of the members of the planning committee,” said Dickson. “It’s all volunteers, and has involvement from many health organizations. The planning committee’s employers often provide support and in-kind donations to cover everything from honorariums for speakers to scholarships for student attendees to technical and sound equipment.”

“I have enjoyed watching the student participation increase over the years,” said Nissen. “Health mentors and educators keep encouraging the next generation of the healthcare workforce to attend the conference, which speaks to its value in providing the big picture of rural and public health in North Dakota to students.” The longevity of the Dakota Conference on Rural and Public Health is a testament to its ability to adapt to the ever-changing environment of healthcare. A dedicated planning committee, sponsors, and attendees have helped build the conference’s reputation for being an efficient use of participants’ time and resources. The Dakota Conference celebrates its 30th year, and continues to be committed to providing a forum for the improvement of rural and public health.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of North Dakota Medicine.

Nikki Massmann Nikki Massmann is the Director of Communications at the Energy and Environmental Research Center (EERC). Prior to her position at the EERC, she served as Communication Coordinator at the Center for Rural Health at the University of North Dakota's School of Medicine & Health Sciences.