Below you will find coverage from our May 23 Tech Council luncheon in Eau Claire, a recording of the panel discussion as well as a guest column from the UW-Eau Claire Chancellor Schmidt on the topic.

Eau Claire Leader Telegram:  UWEC unveils alliance to focus on improving access, outcomes, cost in rural healthcare
WEAU 13 News: UWEC announces collaboration to find solutions for rural health care improvement
WQOW Channel 18: UW-Eau Claire announces rural heath care alliance
WKBT Channel 8: UW-Eau Claire announces rural health innovation alliance
The Chippewa Herald: Chippewa Valley seeks to become rural health epicenter with creation of Rural Health Innovation Alliance

Click here to watch a recording of the session.

Collaborating in the “sandbox” of rural health care innovation
By Jim Schmidt 

The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, along with Chicago-based Health Equity Innovation Partners, is initiating a collaborative environment that brings together health care providers, entrepreneurs and other partners to find solutions to improve health care delivery in rural areas.

The Rural Health Innovation Alliance was announced Thursday at the Wisconsin Technology Council luncheon held at UW-Eau Claire.

The focus of the Rural Health Innovation Alliance is to create a “sandbox” model that spurs innovation through collaborations among multiple health care providers and others in an open environment where data, technology and successes are shared.

In many ways, this is a logical next step of the work on our workforce development grant, which was a $9.4 Workforce Innovation Grant UW-Eau Claire received in 2021 from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. UW-Eau Claire was awarded the grant to focus on strengthening the workforce to improve health and wellbeing in rural areas across northwest Wisconsin.

The Rural Health Innovation Alliance aspires to make the Chippewa Valley region the epicenter for testing innovative care models and global technology solutions for rural health care delivery, which if successful could become a national model.

The proposal is forward looking and is not about building traditional hospitals. It is about building a collaborative environment to test new ideas and solutions to improve access to health care, while considering the social determinants of health that are unique to rural settings.

Making quality health care available and advancing health equity in rural communities has long been a challenge. The urgency of those challenges was underscored by the recent departure of the Hospital Sisters Health System network and the Prevea clinics from northwestern Wisconsin.

The RHIA was not formed in response to the closure of the HSHS, as discussions about the alliance began last summer. The university and the alliance members support the efforts of the HSHS/Prevea Task Force, which was formed by the Eau Claire, Chippewa Falls and Menomonie area Chambers of Commerce early this year to help the region react and respond to the impact of the closures.

Instead, the alliance is focused on finding sustainable solutions to long-term challenges whose roots predate the recent closures.

Discovering new approaches and products to improve access to care for patients in rural areas is a critical goal of the RHIA. Research, discovery, testing and product improvements will occur within the innovation sandbox mentioned in the proposal. Testing, analyzing data and sharing expertise to continually refine delivery models and products will be common practice within the sandbox.

A critical part of UW-Eau Claire’s mission is to educate and train the health care workforce of the future. With thousands of students interested in health care related careers, UW-Eau Claire students will have a unique hands-on opportunity to learn and test these emerging solutions to improve the quality of life in the Chippewa Valley and beyond.

One of the initial steps outlined by the alliance’s plan includes the creation of “microsites” within several communities. The purpose of the microsites is to enhance access to health care for patients in rural areas, and the services available at these sites could include urgent care, behavioral health, primary care, maternal care, pediatrics and oncology.

The small, versatile microsites would feature both in-person and virtual care. The hybrid approach will utilize cutting-edge technology and delivery models focused on establishing new paradigms for future health care.

Ultimately, the alliance hopes those solutions can be scaled across the country and perhaps around the world.

Schmidt is chancellor of the UW-Eau Claire.