20 Years of RHIhub: A Message from the Director

RHIhub 20th Anniversary logoThis December, the Rural Health Information Hub (RHIhub) is celebrating a milestone birthday. Believe it or not, it was 20 years ago that the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy (FORHP) first funded RHIhub — then the Rural Assistance Center but hereafter referred to as RHIhub, our name since 2015 — to be a national information center for rural health. Our creation was part of a Rural Health Initiative within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In 2002, the Department established a Rural Task Force that produced a report, One Department Serving Rural America, which called for the creation of a service like RHIhub.

Kristine Sande, RHIhub Program Director

Kristine Sande.

The vision for RHIhub has always been to help rural communities navigate and access all of the resources that are available to them, both within the federal government and elsewhere.  We do that by gathering information from hundreds of organizations and agencies across the country and organizing and synthesizing that information so it can easily be found and used by those who need it. As our tagline says, we aim to be “Your first stop for rural health information.” We know that there are many valuable resources available related to rural health and our goal is not to replace them, but to help our users find them.

Our success with RHIhub is due to the terrific partnership we have with the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy.  Since the launch of the RHIhub 20 years ago, we have, with FORHP’s support, become a key source of timely information on rural health for communities across the country.

We know that there are many valuable resources available related to rural health and our goal is not to replace them, but to help our users find them.

Speaking of great partnerships: RHIhub has been the product of a longstanding partnership between the Center for Rural Health at the University of North Dakota and the Rural Policy Research Institute, or RUPRI, for the full 20 years, as well as the NORC Walsh Center for Rural Health Analysis for the last decade.  The operational home for RHIhub is at UND in Grand Forks, ND. We have had the pleasure of working with a robust Advisory Board with representation from national membership organizations, research centers, technical assistance providers, and local stakeholders, who generously share their expertise and keep us informed of the information needs of the rural health community.

From the very beginning, RHIhub has leveraged the expertise of our partners and Advisory Board, giving us access to some of the nation’s leading rural experts. We also work closely with representatives from other federal agencies, state governments, and national organizations to access information, experts, and technical assistance for rural communities and healthcare providers across America. The generosity of the rural health community has been truly astounding, as we have collaborated, tapped expertise, captured innovations and lessons learned, and made referrals to willing experts over the years.

Thinking back to 2002, to the time when we were scrambling to get the first website launched — before we even had our operations staff in place — the program had really strong leadership and rural health expertise.  Mary Wakefield was the director of the Center for Rural Health at the time and was RHIhub’s first program director — she, of course, continues to do great work for America in other roles.  From RUPRI, we had Chuck Fluharty and Keith Mueller providing input and leadership.  I think I was too new to the world of rural health at the time to fully appreciate their reputation as visionaries and champions for rural communities, but I certainly did by the time I took over as the program director in 2004!

Their vision called for RHIhub to coordinate information sharing and streamline information for electronic dissemination, using technology to enhance rural communities’ access to the information and resources they need to improve local healthcare and human services, which often face problems different from their urban counterparts.  Specific challenges faced by rural communities include high rates of poverty and health disparities, under-resourced infrastructure, long distances to needed services, lack of transportation, and shortages of healthcare professionals, among others.  These challenges are compounded by the fact that rural providers “wear many hats” within their organizations and communities and often don’t have access to specialized resources for tasks like searching for information and grant writing that are available to their urban counterparts. On top of which, with their multiple responsibilities, time is always at a premium. Because of that, opportunities might be lost, not only for the providers, but also the communities they serve.

So our quest, here at RHIhub, has always been to level the playing field, so to speak, for rural providers across the country in finding and taking advantage of the opportunities and resources that are available to them — as well as to give them access to information which can help them create their own opportunities for their communities.

So our quest, here at RHIhub, has always been to level the playing field, so to speak, for rural providers across the country in finding and taking advantage of the opportunities and resources that are available to them — as well as to give them access to information which can help them create their own opportunities for their communities.  Our staff, particularly our information and funding specialists, act as a virtual extension, if you will, of staff in rural facilities across the United States. Our amazing staff over the years has embraced this role which has given them a way to serve the rural communities that they are so passionate about.

We always knew that RHIhub would have a very diverse audience. RHIhub is designed for anyone interested in improving healthcare delivery as well as population health in rural communities.  This includes people working at the community level, as well as people working for the well-being of rural communities at the state and national levels.

Over the last 20 years, we have provided information and assistance to a great variety of people, including:

  • Local clinic administrators who have questions about regulations or reimbursement for services
  • New hospital board members looking to learn about rural health issues
  • Community-based organizations and local government officials looking for funding
  • Reporters from local, regional, and national publications looking for supporting information and experts to interview
  • Rural community advocates looking for solutions to problems
  • Congressional offices and federal employees looking for research and data

These are just a few examples of the thousands of requests that we’ve been privileged to work on — on behalf of rural Americans.

timeline of key events in the evolution of the Rural Health Information Hub.

Key events in the evolution of the Rural Health Information Hub.

RHIhub provides information through several different services, including our website at ruralhealthinfo.org, our resource and referral service, our weekly newsletter, and social media like Facebook and Twitter.  We also provide original content through the Rural Monitor, our online newsmagazine, and the Exploring Rural Health podcast. All of the services provided by the RHIhub are free to the public, courtesy of our funder, the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Federal Office of Rural Health Policy.

graphic highlighting RHIhub's 21 million website visitors and 15,000 customized assistance requestsOver the last 20 years, the RHIhub website has had over 21 million visitors and our information specialists have answered nearly 15,000 requests for customized assistance, which have come in by phone, e-mail, and even fax in the early years.

If some of those 21 million website visits or 15,000 requests haven’t been from you, I hope that you’ll take the time to check out the wide variety of resources available through the RHIhub, and I hope all of you will continue to tell your colleagues about RHIhub’s services.

Screenshots of the original RAC and current RHIhub websites

A comparison of the original Rural Assistance Center website (left) and RHIhub’s current site offerings.

When the RHIhub (then RAC) website was launched in December 2002, it was pretty basic, with some links to funding opportunities, news articles, and rural events.  We also had what we called information guides, which when we launched were just lists of links on a variety of topics. But, over the years, you’ve all had the chance to watch RHIhub “grow up” — constantly changing, and evolving to meet the needs of rural America. Today, RHIhub’s website is extensive, with all kinds of different resources for rural communities, and we now also share information through a variety of other means, as well.  But, you can be sure that the RHIhub website and other information sharing channels aren’t “done” — we will push forward to make sure the site continues to grow and evolve, as your needs, and technology, changes. We hope that you’ll help us do that by providing us with your feedback and suggestions as you have new information needs that emerge.

We will push forward to make sure the site continues to grow and evolve, as your needs, and technology, changes.

Thank you for allowing us to serve you over the last 20 years. It has truly been our honor and pleasure.