Rural health summit aims to cultivate health care workforce

Shortage of health care providers in rural areas worsens rural health disparities

Rural health summit aims to cultivate health care workforce

Sanford Health will bring policymakers and providers together for a day-long event focused on building the health care workforce of tomorrow to best meet the needs of rural America.

The second annual Summit on the Future of Rural Health Care takes place Oct. 18, 2023, at the Sanford Barn in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It will also be livestreamed for journalists and the public to join. The event begins at 8 a.m. Central.

Attendees include senior U.S. administration officials, lawmakers, health system leaders, industry experts, tech leaders and health care providers. Confirmed speakers include Jesse Ehrenfeld, M.D., president of the American Medical Association, Ezekiel Emanuel, M.D., one of the nation’s leading practitioners shaping the future of health care, Joseph Betancourt, M.D., president of the Commonwealth Fund and Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of the American Health Care Association – among others.

Patients in rural areas feel health effects

The summit aims to deliver solutions to meet current and future health care needs and improve communities for generations to come. Rural America faces unique challenges and opportunities in access to health care:

  • Nearly 20% of the U.S. population lives in rural areas, but only 11% of physicians live and practice in rural communities, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
  • The U.S. faces a projected shortage of up to 124,000 physicians by 2034, the AAMC reports, with the biggest gaps in primary care, behavioral health, and access to care in rural communities.
  • Nearly 25% fewer rural physicians will be practicing by 2030, the AAMC says.
  • The shortage of health care providers in rural areas worsens rural health disparities, the National Rural Health Association says. People living in rural areas already experience higher rates of poverty, food insecurity and chronic disease, often leading to poorer health outcomes.
  • 60% of health outcomes are determined by a person’s ZIP code, according to a Time magazine report.

Related: Health care staffing challenges persist past COVID crisis

Bill Gassen, president and CEO of Sanford Health, the largest rural health system in the United States, will provide opening and closing remarks at the summit.

“Rural America faces unique challenges when it comes to health care, and we look forward to bringing the best and brightest together to explore breakthrough ideas to attract and retain the caregivers we need today and cultivate the workforce we know we will need tomorrow,” said Gassen. “The nationally recognized experts taking part in this summit are changemakers committed to health care transformation.”

Confirmed speakers and agenda topics

Reinventing America’s health care workforce

  • Ezekiel Emanuel, M.D., Ph. D., oncologist and vice provost for global initiatives and co-director of the Healthcare Transformation Institute at the University of Pennsylvania
  • Moderated by Thomas H. Lee, M.D., editor-in-chief at NEJM Catalyst

Sync or swim? Aligning workforce solutions to support care across the continuum

  • Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of the American Health Care Association
  • Alan Morgan, CEO of the National Rural Health Association
  • Moderated by Kimberly Marselas, senior editor at McKnight’s Long-Term Care News

CMS’s top rural workforce priorities

  • Nancy O’Connor, director, office of program operations & local engagement, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services

How can we work smarter, not harder?

  • Antoinette (Toni) Thomas, U.S. Health and Life Sciences chief experience officer & industry executive, Microsoft
  • Ann Mond Johnson, CEO, American Telemedicine Association
  • Erica DeBoer, RN, MA, CCRN-K, CNL, chief nursing officer, Sanford Health
  • Moderated by Dave Newman, M.D., endocrinologist, Sanford Health

Future-proofing our workforce: What can we learn from each other about preparing for the next generation of care?

  • Tommy Ibrahim, M.D., MHA, president & CEO, Bassett Healthcare Network
  • Russ Gronewold, president and CEO, Bryan Health
  • Bill Gassen, president and CEO, Sanford Health
  • Moderated by David Shulkin, M.D., Ninth Secretary, U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs

Patient and provider perspectives – what rural health care leaders need to know

  • Presentation by Thomas H. Lee, MSc, M.D., editor-in-chief, NEJM Catalyst

Legislative outlook: What are the top health care workforce policy solutions?

  • Jerry Penso, M.D., MBA, president and CEO, American Medical Group Association
  • Clifton (Clif) Porter, LNHA, senior vice president, government relations, American Health Care Association
  • Travis Robey, J.D., vice president, political affairs, American Hospital Association
  • Moderated by Corey Brown, system vice president, government affairs, Sanford Health

The economics of baby booms and busts

  • Kasey Buckles, Ph.D., professor of economics and concurrent professor of gender studies, University of Notre Dame

Advancing health equity: The role of the health care workforce

  • Joseph Betancourt, M.D., MPH, president of the Commonwealth Fund
  • Moderated by Thomas H. Lee, M.D., editor-in-chief, NEJM Catalyst

Solving physician burnout: A prescription for a more resilient workforce

  • Jesse Ehrenfeld, M.D., MPH, president, American Medical Association
  • Moderated by Luis Garcia, M.D., president, Sanford Health Clinic Division

Register to join the livestream at

Sanford Health reimagines rural health care

It was a first of its kind gathering of clinicians, health industry leaders, bipartisan policymakers and advocates in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for dialogue around improving care access, reducing costs, and closing disparities in rural and underserved communities.

Sanford Health hosted the Summit on the Future of Rural Health Care in 2022 to engage and empower groups to help shape the future of care delivery as two-thirds of its 1.5 million patient population is rural.

“This is an event we’ve convened to work together and solve the biggest challenge in health care, specifically the challenges we face in rural America,” Gassen said.

In addition to those attending in person, more than 450 people joined the summit via livestream, including national media.

The full video recording from the first Summit on the Future of Rural Health Care is available online.

Redefining rural health

Industry leaders and advocates from across the country served as panelists and moderators representing organizations like Microsoft Health, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid ​Services (CMS), Medtronic, Salesforce, American Medical Association and American Medical Group Association – among others.

“When I saw the direction that Sanford was going with developing this rural health initiative, I got so excited,” Sheri Dodd said.

Dodd is vice president and general manager of Medtronic Care Management Services.

“I grew up in Montana and Idaho, so I understand rural health care and I know how difficult it is to access health care from a rural community,” she added.

Sanford Health clinicians spoke to the unique challenges and opportunities of providing care to rural patients in a video shown at the Summit.

Dr. David Gifford is the chief medical officer of the American Health Care Association, working with nursing homes and assisted living facilities nationwide, including Good Samaritan Society, an affiliate of Sanford Health.

“This is a groundbreaking opportunity to change the way we deliver health care in rural America,” Dr. Gifford said. “The Good Samaritan Society is mission-driven, innovative and really cares about reaching out to the rural community. So to know their leaders are behind this initiative means it’s going to work.”

The rise of telehealth, technology

Panelists explored how digital tools and data with value-based models can shape the future of that delivery.

Eric Larsen, president of the Advisory Board Company, called this a “renaissance moment” in digital history.

“We need to wake up and think about new models and solutions to take care of everybody,” said Dr. Jim Weinstein, who serves as senior vice president of Microsoft Health. “I’m so inspired by rural health.”

One silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic, as Salesforce Chief Medical Officer Dr. Geeta Nayyar suggested, is the embracing of digital technology and telehealth by consumers, doctors and policymakers.

“We’re seeing this amazing opportunity to keep that door open and continue to serve patients where they are,” Dr. Nayyar said. “I think Sanford’s approach to bring all of those together, that is the future of health care and it’s how we work smarter, not just harder.”

Sen. Tina Smith (D-M.N.) and Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) discussed their work in the U.S. Congress to strengthen broadband access and prioritize mental health for the millions who can’t access hospitals.

“Understanding business, medicine and technology is the future,” Dr. Nayyar added.

Breaking ground on the future

The day concluded with a historic groundbreaking as Sanford Health looks to the future of rural care and its state-of-the-art Virtual Care Center.

In 2021, the organization announced a landmark $350 million initiative, thanks in large part to a gift by philanthropist T. Denny Sanford, to transform health care for rural and underserved communities.

Virtual care serves a significant need and purpose as Sanford Health delivers care across 250,000 square miles with 60% of patients living in rural areas.

Read: Sanford breaks ground on transformative virtual care center

The 60,000-square-foot facility will serve as the hub for a network of virtual clinics and telehealth services. The facility is expected to open in 2024.

Sanford Health and community leaders line up with gold shovels, smiling and tossing scoops of dirt in the air.
Sanford Health and community leaders break ground on the Sanford Virtual Care Center, Aug. 23, 2022, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Photo by Don McLeer, Sanford Health

The Sanford Virtual Care Center will feature dedicated clinician workspaces equipped with the latest telemedicine technology to offer a variety of services, including on-demand urgent care, behavioral health care and primary care. The building will also house innovation, education and research initiatives to advance digital health care and workforce solutions for the future.

“The fact that Sanford wants to take this on – in a very public and intentional way – will set the bar for what rural care delivery will look like in the future particularly with a virtual care foundation,” Dodd said.

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