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Rural Health Information Hub

Characteristics of Successful Programs

Effective rural health programs have key features that help make them successful. Not all programs need to have all of these characteristics, but these factors do help contribute to successful rural community health programs.

Evidence-based: As highlighted in Module 2: Developing a Program, evidence-based and promising practices are instrumental to having a strong program model. Evidence-based practice is conscientious, explicit, and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about care of the individual patient, program planning, and decision making for public health and healthcare. It means integrating individual clinical expertise with the best available evidence from systematic research.

Implementing a program with an evidence-based model can help guide rural practitioners to make decisions about which strategies will best address a particular problem. This can help avoid wasting time and resources implementing a less effective program. Multiple registries that review evidence-based and promising practices exist that can help communities identify program models that work for them. See Identify Evidence-Based and Promising Program Models in Module 2 for examples.

Community Engagement: One key feature of successful programs is the engagement of many different stakeholders within a rural community. Programs that include a variety of different providers, agencies, and investors in their programs are typically more effective. The engagement from multiple levels of the community provides each rural health program with a connection to the community, increases knowledge about community issues, and shows that the program wants to address community problems.

Strong Partnerships: In addition to building support from the community, it is important for rural health programs to develop strong partnerships with other organizations. Organizations with similar missions can partner with each other and work together to achieve similar goals. Partnerships can also help to maximize the use and efficient allocation of resources, as well as provide expert opinions and community buy-in for rural health programs. Partnerships can be formed with local school systems, community-based organizations, hospitals, medical centers/clinics, or local government agencies. For example, several rural obesity programs have partnered with local schools to serve as implementation sites for their program, so that the program could more easily access obese youth populations.

Sustainability Plans: Sustainability is an important program component to address early in the planning and implementation stages, so that systems can be established to actually keep the program functioning and improving health in a community. A sustainability plan is a roadmap for achieving long-term goals and documents strategies to continue the program, activities, and partnerships. Sustainability can be defined in different ways—the sustainability of the values that the project promotes, the sustainability of relationships between organizations, and the sustainability of services. Module 5 goes into more detail about how rural health programs can develop strong sustainability plans.

Evaluation Support: Evaluation is a key to helping determine program effectiveness. Some rural community health programs will have staff with evaluation expertise. Other programs may consider establishing a relationship with researchers at a local university to provide external feedback on program implementation, or evaluate the impact of the program. There are also organizations that specialize in program evaluation and technical assistance, which can provide similar service.

Identify Community Challenges and Assets: A rural community will have challenges that are specific to their population based on resources, social determinants of health, and needs. A program that identifies potential challenges prior to implementation will be better prepared to address those challenges, should they arise. Similarly, identifying community assets prior to implementation can better position a program to leverage those assets in program activities.

Resources to Learn More

Program Planning Resource
Overview of the program planning and implementation process and its alignment with evaluation. Includes links to resources that are relevant to each step of the process for additional information.
Organization(s): Community Preventive Services Task Force