By Kenya Godette

Old Dominion University's School of Nursing has been awarded a transformative $2.6 million Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) Grant aimed at increasing the number and diversity of Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs) who will be equipped to serve rural, underserved and disadvantaged populations in Virginia.

The grant is part of a strategic initiative to address the pressing healthcare needs of communities that have long been neglected and face significant barriers to accessing quality medical care.

According to the Virginia Healthcare Foundation, Virginia ranks 21st overall for public health, highlighting the need for enhanced healthcare services across the state. A staggering 79% of Virginia's 136 cities and counties are designated as full or partial Medically Underserved Areas, with more than half identified as Health Profession Shortage Areas. The Community Health Needs Assessment of 73 regions identified the top five health needs in the state as obesity and related conditions, heart disease, diabetes, behavioral health and substance abuse.

Southside Virginia has emerged as a particular focus area for the project, as reflected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Social Vulnerability Map of Virginia. This region faces heightened risks due to poor socioeconomic status, disability, minority status and limited housing and transportation options. With the highest proportion of Blacks (35%) compared to other areas of the state (19%), the Southside is predominantly rural with the lowest population density. The poverty rate in the region (26%) is twice the state average (13%), and a significant portion of the population (18.8%) receives health care benefits from Medicaid.

"This HRSA grant will allow us to make a tangible impact on the lives of those residing in underserved communities,” said Suzanne Wright, Ph.D., Dean of ODU’s School of Nursing. “Our focus will be on training and supporting a diverse group of Student Trainee Scholars who will be well-prepared to address the unique healthcare needs of rural and underserved populations."

Dean Wright also commended the grant team for their successful grant submission. Members of the grant team include Janice Hawkins, (Principal Investigator), Carolyn Rutledge, Tina Gustin, Jessica Parrott, Karen Karlowicz, Emily Horvath, Beth Tremblay, Tammy Speerhas, Lindsey Torres, Chelsea Weaks, Grace Gustin and Amanda Hudgins.

The project aims to recruit and support 25 full-time or part-time equivalent Student Trainee Scholars each year over the four-year period. This will translate into 100 graduating scholars who will be equipped to make a difference in the lives of vulnerable communities across Virginia. The curriculum will emphasize crucial topics such as healthcare disparities, mental health and substance use disorders, telehealth, Social Determinants of Health (SDOH), and culturally sensitive care for populations including veterans, the elderly, individuals experiencing homelessness, mothers and children, and people with mental health concerns.

To ensure that the graduates are well-prepared for their roles, clinical rotations for many students will be conducted on the School of Nursing’s mobile health clinic van in Franklin. The mobile healthcare unit was made possible through previous HRSA funding and has proven instrumental in reaching remote and underserved areas.

Furthermore, the project's approach includes recruiting students from rural and underserved areas for the Community Nurse Scholars program and providing them education through distance learning. This initiative is expected to foster a deeper connection with these communities, making students more likely to remain and practice in these areas following their education.

Overall, the HRSA grant awarded to ODU's School of Nursing represents a critical step toward promoting healthcare equity and addressing disparities in underserved communities. By nurturing a new generation of APRNs equipped with the knowledge and compassion to serve these populations effectively, ODU is making a significant contribution to the health and well-being of individuals and communities across the state of Virginia. This initiative exemplifies ODU's commitment to societal impact, inclusive education and elevating the quality of healthcare for all.