C magazine

Rural Rx

Nurse unloading medical equipment from ambulance

Nurse Shari Kuther has been caring for rural residents for more than 30 years.

Jan 13, 2020

Education program helps nurses meet ag-specific health needs.

While inoculating a set of rambunctious calves, a rancher accidentally vaccinates himself. An ag pilot wonders if he’s been exposed to the herbicide he was loading. A young 4-H’er is kicked in the knee by her skittish show horse.

While big-city nurses may never see patients with these concerns, they’re all in a day’s work for rural health care providers. Ask Shari Kuther, registered nurse, trauma instructor and emergency medical technician at St. Mary’s Hospital and Clinics in Cottonwood, Idaho, population 923.

Serving the Frontier

In Kuther’s corner of Idaho, two hospitals and 30 providers care for 28,000 people.

“In the health care world, we’re considered the frontier because of our low density and number of health care providers for the population,” she says. That means nurses like Kuther are on the front line when treating farmers, ranchers and neighbors.

For more than 30 years, she’s seen countless patients with ag-related injuries and conditions. Even with her wealth of experience, Kuther says nothing in her continuing education addressed those specific concerns — until she enrolled in the online Nurse Scholar Program (NSP), presented by AgriSafe Network and funded by CHS. Kuther was one of 25 nurses in the inaugural NSP class in 2018.

“The Nurse Scholar Program is wonderful,” she says. “I learned a lot from it, particularly the classes on zoonoses, which focused on the diseases humans can pick up from animals, and pesticide exposure of children and women in their reproductive years.”

NSP offers continuing education in agricultural occupational health, which includes everything from safety education to screenings to emerging issues, such as wildfire health threats and farm flood disaster relief.

Filling a Gap

The program is the brainchild of a group of nurses in Iowa who recognized a pressing need: It has been estimated that rural American communities could employ 8,000 nurses with ag-specific advanced training. Charlotte Halvorson of AgriSafe, a registered nurse and certified occupational health nurse specialist, helped create the NSP program.

Nurse Shari Kuther updating medical chart
The Nurse Scholar Program has helped Shari Kuther and other nurses learn how to care for health concerns specific to patients who live and work in agricultural areas.

“Even though providers work in agricultural communities, they frequently don’t have the ag-related background to quickly identify health concerns and get appropriate treatment for patients,” she says. “Without that background, they can miss signs, symptoms and preventive opportunities. It’s so important to ask the right questions, such as ‘What do you do for a living?’ and ‘What kind of exposure have you had?’ as early as possible.”

Halvorson and her advisory team of rural health care professionals devised a curriculum presented in 13 online one- and two-hour training sessions. Topics were chosen for their relevance to rural nurses across the country. They include hearing conservation, childhood safety, respiratory health, ergonomics, heat-related illness, opioid misuse prevention and mental health. All are taught by educators who are national and international experts in their subject matter. For instance, the instructor on animal diseases is a veterinarian.

“The classes open an important educational window for participants,” Halvorson says. “Participants also gain access to evidence-based resources and contact with the educators that goes beyond the classes.”

NSP also offers rural nurses a convenient way to earn continuing education credits to maintain their licenses. The entire program is offered online through recorded webinars so participants can take classes at times that work best for them.

Health and Safety Focus

There is a fee for NSP, and that’s where CHS comes in. CHS is the sole sponsor of the Nurse Scholar Program, providing scholarships to nurses so they can attend with minimal out-of-pocket expense. In 2018, CHS funded participation of 20 nurses and covered administrative costs.

For Kuther, the financial support is a major plus. “Four nurses from St. Mary’s are in the program this year and most received scholarships,” she says. “That help is invaluable for nurses who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford the course. The more nurses trained in the specifics of rural health care the better — it increases the value of the care they deliver, and they share what they’ve learned with their colleagues.”

NSP is a logical fit for CHS, says Tera Stoddard with CHS Community Giving. “Through CHS Community Giving, we support ag health and safety projects that strengthen hometown communities. NSP helps caregivers serve rural populations and gives nurses the skills they need to fill the health care gap in rural America and effectively treat those who work in agriculture.”

LEARN MORE: Find information about the Nurse Scholar Program and AgriSafe at agrisafe.org.