An Interview with Teryl Eisinger

by Beth Blevins

Teryl EisingerTeryl Eisinger is the Director of the National Organization of State Offices of Rural Health (NOSORH). Prior to that, she served as assistant director of the Nevada Office of Rural Health and the Northeastern Nevada Area Health Education Center.

In her career, Teryl has had programmatic responsibility for various Interdisciplinary Training, State Loan Repayment, Rural Health Outreach, Abstinence Education and other federally funded programs. She has provided volunteer leadership to various rural and urban non-profit organizations whose missions focused on economic development and rural health, including serving as chair of a large community health center.

She and her husband, Alan, a Lutheran pastor, have three children and six grandchildren. When she is not working, and not busy with church activities, Eisinger likes to dabble in knitting, cook for family and friends, go on quiet bike rides in the country, and take her dog out in a canoe. She enjoys a good chick flick, spy stories and books about small town life. She is also a Detroit sports fan.

For more information on NOSORH, visit its webpage or Facebook page.

NOSORH is sponsoring the first National Rural Health Day on November 17th. What is National Rural Health Day and what do you hope to accomplish with it?

National Rural Health Day (NRHD) is part of what we hope will be a national Power of Rural Campaign. Our purpose is to tout the strengths of rural communities as places to live and work, increase awareness of rural health-related issues and promote the efforts of State Offices of Rural Health (SORHs), NOSORH and other partners in addressing those issues.

This is the first year for NRHD. We’re starting small, with no sponsors, no fundraising and small funding. But we think it can go big in touting the benefits and opportunities of living and working in rural America, as well as explaining what’s uniquely challenging about providing for rural America’s health care needs.

The logo and tools we’re developing are available for any organization or community group to use to celebrate and appreciate rural America. Check out our website: National Rural Health Day: Celebrating the Power of Rural! We’ve also got press releases, success stories, talking points and other tools to help everyone celebrate NRHD.

How will it be observed?

Celebrations of NRHD are being planned around the nation by SORHs, their partners and the communities they serve. Many governors have made proclamations declaring November 17th as National Rural Health Day in their state. Along with our partners we’ll be calling attention to success stories from rural America and the needs of rural Americans. We’re planning webinars on that day to help people around the nation understand the importance of health care in rural America. Hospitals are planning health fairs. State Offices are convening meetings and making awards, legislators are holding conference calls with their rural constituents, state rural health associations are having “what is rural” photo and video contests. The celebrations are as unique as the communities and SORHs themselves.

Who came up with the idea?

The idea came when Karen Madden (Past President of NOSORH and Director of the New York Office of Rural Health), Bill Hessert (NOSORH Communications Coordinator) and I visited a large national association to introduce them to the work of SORHs. We were impressed by their large staff and resources, but we also remarked how lucky we are to work with a small association where we pretty much know every member. We were thinking about how our SORHs are often called upon to promote other national campaigns like National Public Health Day and Primary Care Day, and Karen suggested we should do some kind of national rural campaign.

For a long time we’ve known that there are many misconceptions about rural people and places and we want to promote the positives of rural America. We want to bust some of the stereotypes about rural Americans. We are inspired by the quality of care that is being provided in small hospitals across the nation. We know that rural America is a wonderful place to work as a health professional and we want others to know that too. Our board set this as a priority last year, to promote the power of rural, and it really got rolling this year. We hope it will grow from a day to a campaign that will get the attention of policymakers.

How did you choose the date?

We looked at the notion that people turn their eyes to rural America and the Heartland during a time of harvest. One of the funny rural stories is that we thought we had found the perfect date—we looked at all types of calendars before we settled on it. But it turns out that the legislatures in Michigan and in some Midwest states won’t even be in session because it’s hunting season!

Can you describe in a few words what NOSORH does and how it supports the work of SORHs?

NOSORH works to build the capacity of SORHs and other state entities to improve health care in rural America. We provide education to SORHs and their partners, promote leadership of SORHs, advocate for SORHs and their partners, and work to develop partnerships to improve rural health. We’re thankful for the support provided by the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy’s (FORHP) cooperative agreement—it is our most important partner in supporting the work of SORHs.

NOSORH is a virtual organization—it doesn’t have a central office. How does that work? And what are its advantages?

All of the NOSORH staff work from home so when we’re at work, we’re at home. That can sometimes blur the lines between work and life outside of work, but I think that technology is making that true for a lot of people.

When we started out, we worried that it would show a lack of dedication to the work that we’re doing, but now we’re seeing this as a growing trend among associations across the country. It’s not necessary to have a building anymore. It allows us to take advantage of expertise where it lies—we can pick and choose. We’re about to hire a new special projects coordinator and we know that we can get a broad section of referrals from across the nation. I really like that diversity—I think it brings a lot to the work that we do for the state offices.

And it’s a benefit for the staff. People enjoy working from home. A certain type of employee likes that lone eagle aspect to their work. But one of our greatest challenges is seeing one another in person. Donna and I both live in Michigan, Stephanie lives in Idaho, and Bill lives in Pennsylvania. We instant message each other, and Skype from time to time so that we’re making eye contact, but we usually only all see each other at our annual meeting.

When and how did NOSORH start?

Teryl Eisinger Exploring

In her spare time, Teryl Eisinger enjoys exploring country roads.

It was born out of a need to advocate for SORHs that was unmet by other national associations. I was with the Nevada SORH in 1992 at the meeting when a group of long- term, dedicated rural health advocates made the motion to form the organization. NOSORH was incorporated in 1995, but it didn’t have staff until 2006 when I came here as the first paid staffer—it was all volunteer-led before that. I am the beneficiary of the hard work of many long-time, hard working rural health advocates around the nation. In the beginning NOSORH was seen more as a listserv and a grouping of SORH directors. One thing I’ve tried to do is to help NOSORH look beyond folks in formal leadership positions and help grow the vision on how we can serve other affiliates and SORH staffers.

What are NOSORH’s goals for the future?

Our Board of Directors has set a direction to accomplish seven high priority activities. At the top of that list is maintaining rural program funding and building the capacity of SORHs! That’s a tough assignment these days—there are many threats to SORHs and many needs. If you’ve seen one SORH you’ve seen one SORH. They’re all different— they all have unique areas of expertise, need and challenges.

This year we rolled out a performance measures tool for all SORHs, we’re doing some good work to assess TA needs of rural health clinics, and we’re growing our own capacity to build leadership and partnerships for rural health.

We know we’ve got to ensure funding for all rural programs, to be able to quantify our work and to help the partners of SORHs realize what a great secret weapon a SORH partner can be.

You have five regional SORH meetings every year. Do the concerns of SORHs differ region by region? Are there concerns that they also universally share? How do they help one another?

We bring together five regional groups of SORHs to FORHP grantees meetings every summer. Through this, I’ve learned a few things: stereotypes of regions of the country are somewhat true, there are issues that are more important in some regions of the country, and that as unique as the rural geography or definition is, there are still common issues. All SORHs are concerned about the impact of the federal deficit, access to care for rural communities and ensuring the rural voice is heard as policy changes are considered. All SORHs have a responsibility for information dissemination, collaboration, ensuring a focal point for health workforce recruitment, and technical assistance. All SORHs carry out these responsibilities uniquely. I think some of the big differences we’re seeing among SORHs are their organizational structure and resources.

SORHs are such a great resource for each other. NOSORH runs the James Bernstein mentoring program so that SORH staffers have the funding to visit other SORHs and be mentored. Each SORH has an area of expertise. SORHs know how to leverage resources, convene stakeholders, provide technical assistance and make things happen in rural America. The projects that they are working on in each state are incredible and broad reaching, from quality improvement to recruitment to data collection to telemedicine and reimbursement.

Are you from a small town, or have you ever lived in a rural area?

I’m the daughter of a Navy Captain. I’ve been so fortunate to live in every region of the country. I lived and worked and volunteered in rural New Mexico and Nevada for about 20 years total. I went to Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona, a pretty small town by some standards.

My husband and I moved to the Detroit area in 2003 and I like to say we are from rural Detroit. We live in a suburb just north of the city—many of our friends and neighbors actually think they live in a rural area—our little subdivision sets on the edge of woods and was farmland and orchards not so very long ago. It’s really fun to explain what rural really is.

How did you get interested in rural health?

I came to work in rural health very simply. I moved to a small frontier town in New Mexico after working for a big university hospital in Colorado. When you move to a small town, you get tapped for all kinds of things. Even though the things I volunteered to help with weren’t health care-related, they all linked back to the local hospital. I moved to Nevada and went to work with a small business development center and once again I got back to that work (with the local hospital) which led to my working with the Nevada Office of Rural Health as a Community Development Coordinator. When I first came to Michigan I worked for a big hospital system and quickly learned that my heart is in making a difference for communities—there’s no better place to do that than working in rural health.

I’m so lucky. This is one of the best jobs I could ever imagine having.

Opinions expressed are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Rural Health Information Hub.

Back to: Fall 2011 Issue