Network Spotlight: Arizona Rural Women's Health Network

October 2017
Arizona Rural Women's Health Network

Participants take a moment to celebrate at the 2017 Rural Women’s Health Symposium in Sedona, AZ.

Network Name Arizona Rural Women's Health Network (AzRWHN)
Location Phoenix, AZ
Key Contact Leah Meyers, Director
Mission To build our network partners’ capacity to cultivate and promote innovative policies, practices, and services that improve the health of women in Arizona.
Vision Women in rural Arizona will experience optimal health and wellness.

Leah Meyers, Director of the Arizona Rural Women’s Health Network, was interviewed by the Network TA team to share information on the network’s characteristics, key learnings, accomplishments, and challenges.

Q: In a nutshell, how would you describe your network?

A: We are a multi-disciplinary group of dedicated providers and interested parties whose main objective is supporting health and wellness in rural communities, in particular issues that affect women.

Q: What benefits do network members receive?

A: Our members benefit from collaboration, sharing resources, and communicating about upcoming opportunities. If you’re on our membership list, we send out all kinds of information and resources. We hold an annual Rural Women’s Health Symposium, and members receive a registration discount for the event. The symposium highlights programs in Arizona that are doing great work to support women’s health, and provides education and best practices. We also present four different awards for Innovative Approach, Outstanding Achievement, Emerging Leader and Health Practitioner of the Year.

Q: What challenges do you face working in rural health care?

A: Obviously, there are the same rural challenges that everybody has. There aren’t a lot of resources; it's not easy to always be able to reach everybody. In trying to reach and support people, we try to be conscious of the fact that organizations in rural communities don't always have a lot of staff. If we're going to provide a four-hour training, that means somebody has to be out of a clinic or out of an office environment for four hours. That's a lot when you're talking about a small-scale operation in some areas.

Also, in Arizona, we have 22 tribes. Each one is its own sovereign nation. There's a lot of diversity, which in many ways is nice. It’s fun to learn about everybody's culture and their social norms as well as their health norms. But at the same time, having 22 different entities can be a lot to keep up with and connect to each area. We have an Inter Tribal Council, and so we definitely work with them as a consortium that also works with all of the tribes.

We're a huge state, and one of the hard parts for us as a network is we try and help people throughout rural Arizona. It can be a challenge to really feel like we're having an impact, which is why I think sometimes we try to think of approaches that aren't just one-time trainings or one-time resources. We want to make our support available so that anyone who comes across one of our social media accounts or our website has access to the resources that will help them.

Q: What are the advantages of working in your rural environment?

A: When you’re working in a smaller community, sometimes there's more buy-in and less red tape. For example, one of our big projects right now is to expand the number of forensic exams [for sexual assaults] that can be conducted in rural communities without having to transport to an urban location. If there’s no trained nurse in the area, it means a long drive or helicopter ride. When your body is a crime scene, and when you’ve been victimized, a long-distance trip is difficult. Pediatric exams are the hardest to get. Usually they have to go Flagstaff, Tucson, or Phoenix for a peds exam. There's a tribe that lives in the Grand Canyon, Havasupai. There was a child who was sexually assaulted there, and they couldn't get a helicopter to bring them out. A group of friends and family from the tribe had to take turns carrying them up and out of the canyon, which is a four- or five-hour hike.

You can train a nurse to do the proper exam, but if they leave and they were the only one trained, then you’re back to having a big gap. A few years ago, one of our communities had a nurse trained, and we’re trying to help them re-establish their setup. For the most part, nobody wanted to do it. It takes time, money, and energy. It takes somebody away from other work, which could be staffing the emergency department. A forensic exam can take five or six hours, depending on the case, so it’s hard for rural areas to have an extra person available. Even though we kept talking with them about it and there was interest, not everybody was bought in or able to do it.

After a few cases happened, we found that someone from the prosecutor's office was related to someone in the hospital. And then someone from law enforcement was related to someone in the hospital. So there were two or three people in the community who were key to helping solve a sexual assault case. With the two or three different influential people talking to the hospital, they were able to make much more headway than we were. In that way, I think having a rural community is also nice, because it has that tight-knit, stronger commitment to be able to do something once that ball gets rolling.

Q: What has been a surprising insight over the course of your network’s development?

A: The one thing that comes to mind is how much passion and advocacy about protecting health care I see within our state. Sometimes you might assume that it's a party-line thing, and it's not. The people we work with are Democrats, Republicans and Independents. It's reaffirmed to me how there are some very passionate and compassionate people out there making sure that they have health care and that it's available to anybody and everybody. I know it's been said we know our capabilities in times of crisis. But it really shows when we are pressed to have to think about something we take for granted, that you really see and understand what a priority it is and what people will do to help others.

Q: Tell me about a setback your network has recently faced. How are you working to overcome it?

A: We were hoping to compete for another large grant. There was a problem in the submission that we didn't have a document uploaded properly, which meant we were ineligible. Once we determined we weren’t going to be considered for the funding, in some ways it felt like a big deal because it was really important for our network. But it also made our network think about this in the sense of, "Oh, well, we can't just depend on this funding. We really do have to figure out another way. What is our next step? How can we do this? If worse comes to worst, what and how can we keep this program going?"

We did some brainstorming of possible foundations and other funding sources we really hadn't thought about. We don't have a membership fee, so we talked about possibly creating a membership fee structure. In doing that, we’re also trying to then say, "What is our value?" It’s something I'm sure every network goes through at some point in terms of your viability and sustainability. But it was impressive to me to see when something really was affecting our whole network and could impact our future, how well people came together, again, and said, "This is important. We need to step aside our usual business and make sure to put this front and center on our agenda."

Q: Based on your experience as a network leader, what advice would you give to a developing rural health network?

A: You have to be flexible. Flexibility is a good thing. Chocolate is also important.

I guess in some ways I walked into this role feeling like there was so much to take in. I just wanted to listen and try and understand. But to me, I think what I did, which I think was really helpful and still is, is go to them. We are actually physically located in Phoenix, but the network is statewide. It's so important to go and talk to them where they're at. If we are trying to work with a tribe, then you go to the Navajo Nation. You go to the Hopi Nation. You make sure that you go see them. It's important that you show you're interested in their community and what they're doing, and ask them, and listen how they need help and support.