To students across the country, the end of the year is known for the crunch of final exams followed by the relief of the holiday break.

While most students eagerly anticipated time spent relaxing at home, a group of East Tennessee State University students planned something different. These students collaborated with community partners to focus on expanding access to medical care for those experiencing homelessness in Johnson City. They opened a flu clinic, practiced trauma-informed care, and built trust with community members to form long lasting partnerships. Not only were these students building on the legacy of ETSU as a foundation of public health stewardship in Northeast Tennessee, they were expanding care to one of the most vulnerable populations impacted by the spread of COVID-19, helping to close the gaps in rural health disparities in Tennessee.

The past year underscored the need to address the accelerating health disparities facing rural communities, and these students are but one example of how the student community has stepped up.

In Northeast Tennessee, there is a disproportionate incidence of chronic illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, and respiratory disease. And public health crises like the opioid epidemic and Hep C silently devastate local communities. Those who struggle with underlying chronic conditions have experienced some of the most serious complications of COVID-19. These cascading health disparities have been top of mind among community and statewide leaders.

In November 2020, Governor Bill Lee proclaimed a Rural Health Day to emphasize the importance of rural hospitals and other health care providers as well as recognize that rural communities have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. And they’re experiencing crushing shortages in both space and staffing capacity to treat patients under a surge of COVID-19 cases.

In Northeast Tennessee, the need for experienced healthcare providers is especially critical. The US Department of Health and Human Services has designated the upper eight counties as a Health Professional Shortage Area. While health leaders like Ballad Health, ETSU, and the providers that already serve this region have gone above and beyond to address rural health disparities, we still need more health care providers who are dedicated to serving rural populations.

That’s why our Anthem affiliated Medicaid plan in Tennessee is sponsoring three scholarships for ETSU’s College of Nursing through the Amerigroup Rural Medicine Scholarship. These scholarships will open the door to education for students who are not only passionate about caring for others, but have made a commitment to practicing medicine in rural communities. As a managed care organization serving Tennessee’s Medicaid population, we are dedicated to closing the gap in rural health disparities for residents across the state. These scholarships will play a part in fulfilling that mission and creating a long-lasting, positive impact on the region.