Delivering Health Care Where It’s Most Needed

Throughout rural Washington, nearly 800,000 residents face challenges accessing health care providers. To address this gap, WSU has launched the Rural Health Initiative (RHI)—thanks, in large part, to a $2.2 million anonymous gift to WSU’s College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences in 2022. 

 Since that generous gift was received, an inaugural cohort of five pharmacy students was recruited into the program, and now a new cohort of four students has joined their ranks. At the same time, a new faculty member has been recruited to train RHI students at a critical access hospital that serves a small town driven by the lumber and agricultural industry.

Together, they share a passion and purpose for serving the citizens of underserved communities. 

Addressing workforce shortages

Nationwide, nearly 14 million people live in medically underserved areas. Smaller communities rely heavily on pharmacy services and can feel a shortage severely.

In recent years, the role of a pharmacist has grown. Previous generations of pharmacists may have focused primarily on drugs and medications, but today’s pharmacists are part of a broader health care team delivering holistic, integrated patient care. But in recent years, fewer new professionals have entered the field, and many established pharmacists have chosen retirement brought to a head by the COVID-19 pandemic. As sign-on bonuses become common as a strategy to attract new pharmacists—primarily to more populous areas—rural communities are at a disadvantage.  

 “During a series of round-table discussions this summer, we met with pharmacists, physicians, and other health care leaders to learn about the challenges and opportunities in our rural communities. Almost all of them mentioned workforce shortages affecting rural pharmacies,” said Angela Stewart, associate dean for rural health.

“We learned these shortages are causing some pharmacies to reduce hours, cut back on services provided, and in some cases even to close their doors. Through the Rural Health Initiative—which includes creating pathways into pharmacy, specialized training in rural care, and support for advanced practice models—we hope to build solutions so pharmacists can continue to meet their community needs.” 

An immersive educational experience

Against this challenging landscape, the Rural Health Initiative is building bridges to best-in-practice care in the communities where it is most needed. With pharmacy programs based in Yakima and Spokane, RHI recruits and educates new pharmacy students from rural communities, supports residency programs, and embeds faculty in communities to mentor recent graduates and help develop new practice models.  

This unique program encompasses specialized coursework, hands-on experiences, and a capstone project dedicated to enhancing rural health care. Summers and the program’s final year include clinical rotations in rural settings. This immersive experience equips students with the skills to collaborate with physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and other care providers in rural hospital systems and community pharmacies.  

One goal is to educate future pharmacists to return to these underserved rural areas to work in independent community pharmacies, empowering them to transition to a more sustainable business model centered on patient care services, and having less dependence on a product model. Faculty leading the initiative are training students to work with primary care physicians and other health care providers so that they can build out their services for patients living with chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, or heart disease. 

Committing to practice in rural Washington

Students apply for the RHI program during their first year of studies as pharmacy students, and acceptance comes with substantial benefits. Students are eligible for an annual $10,000 scholarship (on top of any other funding they might be receiving) in return for a commitment to practice in rural Washington for at least three years post-graduation.  

The 2023 RHI cohort includes four exceptional students from the WSU College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences Class of 2026, each with a personal passion for improving rural health care. 

Elaina DeMerritt

Originally from Camas, WA, Elaina DeMerritt envisions opening an independent pharmacy focused on women’s health, catering to the needs of both young and older women. Her decision to join the rural health track stems from firsthand experience witnessing health care disparities in rural areas. “My grandmother lives in rural Oregon and continuously has trouble finding providers who have availability and the knowledge to help with various medical conditions,” said DeMerritt. “Being able to educate communities in Washington in order for them to have the best health care possible is my goal.”

Todd Johanson

Todd Johanson grew up in Kelso, WA, and chose Rural Health for similar reasons. “I picked the rural health track because I have always known that I wanted to practice in a less populated area like the one I grew up in,” he explained. “When I found out that I could join the Rural Health Initiative, I couldn’t believe that there was an organization catered towards exactly what I wanted to do.” Johanson aspires to a career in community or ambulatory care in an area near where he grew up.

Todd (right) during an applied patient care lab earlier this year.

Hunter Farnsworth

Hunter Farnsworth, of Pullman, WA, was inspired by the farming community that shaped his perspective. “I grew up around farmers for my whole life. I have seen many great hearts and warm smiles from rough folk. I want to be able to give back to the community that raised me and helped me get to where I am today.”

Kate Leffel

Kate Leffel dreams of working as a pharmacist in a small town, and was likewise motivated by firsthand experiences growing up in Ritzville, WA. “Between growing up in a small, rural community and pursuing an education in health care, I have witnessed both the lack of access to care, as well as the quality of care that can be provided in these communities.”

DeMerritt, Johanson, Farnsworth, and Leffel join the inaugural group of five from the class of 2025 already enrolled in the program. 

Recruiting faculty mentors

Students aren’t the only Cougars taking up the cause this fall, thanks to funding from RHI. Matthew Nelson recently joined the WSU College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences as an assistant professor. In this role, he splits his time between teaching and working in the pharmaceutical care clinic at Providence Centralia Hospital, a town 23 miles south of Olympia with a population of approximately 18,000. 

Nelson collaborates closely with patients with hypertension, diabetes, hyperlipidemia, and various ambulatory care needs. Simultaneously, he oversees students on rotation, providing mentorship and real-world insights. This hands-on approach ensures that students are well-versed in theory and adept at applying their knowledge in practical health care settings. 

A Wichita native, Nelson completed his residency at Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center in Hillsboro, OR earlier this year. Like the students he will mentor, he was drawn to RHI for the opportunity it offered to make a meaningful impact in rural communities. 

Learn more about the Rural Health Initiative and explore ways you can support its mission.