Improving the health of rural Oklahomans - The University of Tulsa

Improving the health of rural Oklahomans

During fall 2020, students in The University of Tulsa’s first Global Scholars course, GLSC 2013: Global Challenges, were asked to devise a plan to address one or more of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals. One of the teams – comprising Ha Huynh, Danita Mathew, Asa Scott and Iyan Smith Williams – focused on goal 3: good health and well-being.

Four young people wearing face masks and holding RHNOK t-shirts
L-R: Danita Mathew, Ha Huynh, Asa Scott and Iyan Smith Williams

These four students share a passion for healthcare and equity. During their Global Scholars course, they discovered that one of the biggest problems facing healthcare access was right in their own Oklahoma backyard.

The team’s response was TORCH: Toolkit to Optimize Rural Connections in Health Care. “Our central idea was to work with leaders in rural Oklahoma to assist with research, advocacy and action in rural healthcare,” explained Huynh. Given the project’s timing, the students chose the COVID-19 pandemic as TORCH’s first focus area.

Lara Foley, an associate professor of sociology and the director of TU’s Office of Integrative and Experiential Learning, taught the Global Challenges course out of which TORCH emerged. She was so impressed with the quality and potential impact of the students’ project that she encouraged them to enter their project in TU’s World’s Challenge Challenge, wherein teams of two to four choose a global issue and design a unique solution.

In spring 2021, the TORCH team presented their plans and toolkit to a panel comprising TU academic leaders, administrators and alumni, as well as community leaders. Making it to the final round, the students were honored with third place. While that showing meant they would not advance to the global finals in Canada, the students continued to work on and expand their project, including deploying their knowledge, skills and time in rural Oklahoma.

Rural health, rural vaccinations

Three women with a large sign standing outdoors
L-R: Emma Opuku, Danita Mathew and Allison Hussin

In January, the students reached out to the Rural Health Network (RHN) of Oklahoma to inquire about the possibility of getting involved in promoting COVID-19 vaccination. RHN was just beginning to ramp up its efforts to vaccinate rural Oklahomans and had been participating in local vaccination clinics put on by the Oklahoma State Department of Health.

“The moment was perfect for joining forces with these motivated TU students to see how we could together improve health outcomes for our rural residents,” said Paul Marcum, RHN’s health information technology manager.

The collaboration began with a Zoom call to discuss strategy. “It didn’t take long for me to realize that I wasn’t just working with a student group that wanted to put their name on a project and call it good,” commented Marcum. “I was immediately impressed with the innovation and concern these students had for a population of people they have never met. The students came up with a whole vaccination education campaign that RHN ran on social media to help dispel the rumors of vaccines. There were fliers, memes, vaccination stickers – you name it, they had thought of it.”

Three people in blue t-shirts standing outside a grocery store
L-R: Ha Huynh, Star Okolie and Jason Lu passing out flyers around Hugo, OK

The locus of the efforts was Pushmataha County in southeastern Oklahoma. But participation in vaccination clinics was low and turnout was mild at best. “It was clear this was going to be an uphill battle,” Marcum recalled.

Once the Oklahoma Department of Health ceased holding vaccination clinics in the surrounding counties, Marcum and the students realized they had an opportunity to shift gears: “We went from a vaccine education project to putting on our own vaccine clinic.” After many weeks of planning, RHN partnered with the Choctaw Nation to put on two simultaneous clinics, in Hugo and Antlers, and offer free vaccines to anyone that wanted one.

According to Marcum, one of the biggest obstacles in planning such events is finding volunteers that will actually show up, stay until the end and do a good job. “I had put all my eggs in one basket with the TU students and was using them as my single source of volunteers. But I will admit, I had no idea what to expect.”

a group of people standing outdoors and holding signs
TORCH students and volunteers with Paul Marcum (red shirt) at the Antlers vaccination clinic

During their final Zoom call before the clinics, Huynh and Mathew included all the volunteers who had signed on to help. “I was not prepared for the number of people the TORCH team had gathered and the participants’ level of enthusiasm,” said Marcum. “I had to hold back tears of joy until I got off the call; I was overwhelmed by their support. They had assembled a large group of mostly premed students that ALL had an interest in the welfare of the people of southeastern Oklahoma.”

Most inspiringly of all, every volunteer showed up at the clinics, which were held simultaneously on July 10 at the Antlers Fair Barn and the Hugo Agriplex. “It was a really special time for me, personally,” Marcum noted. “But it was also big for our community to have people from the outside work so hard and put many, many hours into a project that only benefited those that are local. I cannot speak highly enough about my interactions with every one of these people. They truly made a difference in the healthcare of rural southeastern Oklahoma.”

From theory to practice to impact

Looking back on the TORCH team’s accomplishments, Foley feels immense pride. “During a very strange year, in an asynchronous virtual class, they took their assignment and ran with it. TORCH is a great example of students learning about research and theories, using this knowledge to come up with ways to address global challenges and then trying to implement their ideas. Along the way, they encountered all kinds of hurdles and learned how to navigate them.”

a bulletin board with a number of colorful flyers and stickers pinned to it
Promotional and informational materials developed by the TORCH team in collaboration with RHN Oklahoma

On the student side, the experience of developing TORCH and then assisting RHN with education and vaccination delivery was both highly educational and personally rewarding. “As students who are from cities, we really had to push ourselves to learn more about rural areas,” noted Mathew. “We found there is a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of access to healthcare, health literacy and economic mobility in rural parts of the state. Adding to the complexity of rural healthcare is the fact that each area is unique.”

“We are so thankful for Paul and the RHN team,” added Huynh. “Personally, working with Paul and this experience has taught me to confidently pursue my passions and pursuits because you do not know who will reach out and what opportunities are around the corner. It has fueled my momentum and efforts to address the disadvantages and challenges to health evident in these rural communities.”

The team’s experiences also brought home for the team the importance of community leaders and organizations in rural areas. “We are thankful to RHN for helping us investigate and address these health disparities,” said Mathew. Creating the toolkit and working with Marcum and his colleagues inspired the team “to keep striving towards finding new ways to provide education about and access to health in rural parts of the country.”


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