At a time when health experts in every state struggle to protect their rural populations — where COVID-19 is taking so many lives — a University of Southern Maine researcher is leading the National Rural Health Association.
On January 1, John Gale began a year-long term as the association’s elected president.
“Our primary mission is to ensure that rural health stays front and center in the policy world,” said Gale, who serves as the director of policy engagement and a senior research associate for the Maine Rural Health Research Center. The center is part of USM’s Muskie School of Public Service.
Nationwide, people in rural areas account for about one fifth of the population, spread out across roughly 80 percent of its land mass.
“It comes with a unique set of responsibilities,” Gale said. Statistically, people in rural areas tend to have more chronic health issues. There tend to be more insurance and health care coverage problems as well as higher use of opioids and alcohol.
The role of the association is to make sure rural health is part of the overall health discussion among leaders, Gale said.
“We’re not saying that rural is more important,” he said. “Our rural areas are incredibly diverse, culturally and racially.
“I get to work on an agenda that I think is important,” he said.
Gale, himself, grew up in rural Maine, in the small, York County town of Lebanon.
“My grandparents had a farm,” he said. “I shoveled manure. I hayed.”
After high school, Gale attended USM. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration in 1979. In 2003, he earned a master’s degree in health policy.
Meanwhile, he held a number of healthcare-related jobs before returning to USM as a researcher. He has served on the Board of Trustees of the National Rural Health Association, and 2016, he made a presentation on opioids to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna.
The current COVID crisis adds new challenges, he said. Beyond the logistics of delivering healthcare to a relatively scattered population, one of the messages is the danger that COVID represents.
“COVID really shows the cracks in our foundation in rural health,” Gale said. “We have to engage communities.”
Erika Ziller, the chair of Public Health at USM and the director of the Maine Maine Rural Health Research Center, said Gale’s election benefits USM and the center.
“John is widely recognized as someone who combines a keen understanding of rural health policy with the on-the-ground realities experienced by rural providers and communities,” Ziller said. “This translates into research products that are timely and useful, and John's work amplifies the concerns of rural constituents.
“John is generous in sharing his knowledge about rural health and his presentations at national conferences are often standing-room only,” she said. “His enthusiasm for rural health transformation is contagious.”