Why This Foundation Injected Millions into Rural Montana Healthcare Recently

Public health professionals are always looking for the variables that create health disparities. One such variable is your zip code, a particular problem for people in sparsely populated rural areas of the country. In other words, how far away is the healthcare you need? And how well-trained are healthcare providers you can easily reach?

People in rural parts of the country have to travel farther for healthcare. And there are fewer doctors in the sticks—lots fewer.

The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, which has identified rural healthcare as one of its areas of focus, points out that many Americans living in every area of the country lack access to quality, affordable healthcare. But those in rural areas face extra challenges due to their geographic isolation and "the severe shortage of qualified healthcare providers" in rural areas.

Here's what that shortage looks like in numbers, according to Helmsley: There as many as 300 physicians for every 100,000 urban dwellers, while remote rural areas can have as few as 55 physicians per 100,000 residents.

The Helmsley Charitable Trust formally addressed the healthcare plight of country folk in 2009, with the creation of its Rural Healthcare Program. The program's goal is to improve healthcare access and quality for people in the upper Midwest.

Why the upper Midwest, specifically? Surprisingly, that area is actually the most medically underserved region in the country, according to Helmsley, with big gaps in healthcare access and a relative lack of private funding. We've written about a number of Helmsley's efforts to fund rural healthcare in areas like cancer, diabetes and heart disease, among others.

The Helmsley Trust recently announced $9.4 million for three different initiatives in the state of Montana. About half of the money, $4.6 million, will go to the Montana Department of Health to support a pretty innovative training program for healthcare professionals: Simulation in Motion Montana. The program uses 18-wheelers outfitted with simulation labs and patient simulators to train rural healthcare providers and EMTs.

Two other grants, totaling $4.3 million, will go to the Billings Clinic for support of its new Helmsley Rural Healthcare Scholars program, a research residency program that pairs medical residents with faculty mentors. The trust will provide up to $500,000 in matching funds over three years in support of the clinic's new internal medicine residency program.

But these newest grants only continue Helmsley's commitment to the region: Combined with grants awarded in November 2015, Helmsley has provided a total of $42 million for rural healthcare in Montana.

That relative lack of private and philanthropic funding we mentioned above? It's at least partly the result of simple math: Many philanthropists are wealthy people who give back to their home states and regions, but rural areas smaller populations, and thus fewer wealthy folks. It's human nature, of course, to help people in one's own community or hometown. But private philanthropists may wish to follow the data-driven decision-making of big foundations like Helmsley, and look for ways to address geographic areas in need, even if there's no personal connection.