New Rural Resource Center Gets to Roots of Problems

06/02/04    LA GRANDE, Ore.

New director hopes to make rural community health care ideas work

Stephen Kliewer looks out the window of his five-acre ranch in Joseph, Ore., at his two horses: a paint named Jazz, and Sadie, the thoroughbred. His Border collie, Riley, and his golden retriever, Indy, are probably nearby. Kliewer, originally from Lakeview, is back where he began -- rural Oregon. He is the first program director of the Oregon Health & Science University Rural Resource Center. The office is in La Grande, about 70 miles away on the campus of Eastern Oregon University in the new science center. OHSU has 5,000 square feet of space in the center, which will also include room for OHSU research labs.

"I find ideas and opportunities and then connect people with those ideas. I want people to send me their ideas about improving health care in their communities," said Kliewer, D.Min., assistant professor of family medicine, OHSU School of Medicine.

The Rural Resource Center will work with individuals, organizations, communities and institutions throughout Oregon to address health care issues facing rural Oregonians. The purpose of the institute is to bring improved care to rural people. It operates under the direction of the OHSU Center for Rural Health and will work closely with the OHSU Area Health Education Centers, OHSU School of Nursing, rural residents and practitioners, and Eastern Oregon University. The Rural Resource Center also will play a key role in a new initiative, the Enterprise for Healthy Rural Oregon, developing under the guidance of the state health officer Grant Higginson, M.D., M.P.H.

"It is a catalyst organization. I see the job as connecting people and ideas. If someone or some organization has an idea, I'm the go-to person. They can come to me with an idea to improve health care in their community and I will work to connect them to the right people or help get the right grants to get the job done. I can help put the players together and provide consultation and support," Kliewer said.

"The Rural Resource Center, with Dr. Kliewer's expertise, will be an advocate for rural Oregonians. We want to hear what we can do for rural communities and then we want to help them do it," said Karen Whitaker, OHSU vice provost and director of the OHSU Center for Rural Health. Whitaker is also the director of the State Office of Rural Health.

"We want to know what their ideas are and what we can do to help. I'm here to represent rural Oregon. We want to help rural communities to be healthier," Kliewer said.

Already he has either applied for grants or is preparing grants related to mental health issues, such as training primary care physicians to be better able to identify mental health concerns in their patients. He is working on a research grant focusing on regional mental health issues.

"A lot of studies show that rural areas do have problems with access, and the stigma of having mental health needs in a small town can be embarrassing for many people so they do not get the needed care. One of things I keep an eye on is what grants are available that focus on rural issues," Kliewer said.

Kliewer is happy being back in this part of Oregon. "I've always wanted to get back to rural Oregon and to help rural Oregonians. It was always a dream of mine to be able to use the skills I've gained and still live here," he said.

He has a doctorate in ministry in group dynamics and was a Presbyterian minister in La Grande. He has an emergency medical training certification and has worked in program development and funding for Northwest Medical Teams International, where he was actively involved in disaster relief in Mexico. As an OHSU assistant professor he is responsible for the development of curricula and teaching in the area of patient and physician communication specifically around psychological, social and spiritual issues.

"I grew up here. I understand the people. I've lived it. I spent summers working on a cattle ranch. I've moved fence and put up hay. I'm here to listen and to help."