Governor announces state funding for new ETSU research center Tuesday

Brandon Paykamian • Jul 16, 2019 at 6:41 PM

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee visited East Tennessee State University’s Quillen College of Medicine Tuesday to announce the state’s support for a new Center for Rural Health Research at the ETSU College of Public Health.

Lee said the state will provide a $1.5 million first-year grant to found the center, as well as a $750,000 annual investment for ongoing operations. The governor said this will help bolster rural health care in Northeast Tennessee by “researching the things that drive the components of rural health.”

Lee described tackling poor rural health as a “national challenge” and an important part of state initiatives to stimulate workforce readiness.

“There are a lot of unique challenges to rural (health care), but I also think that we have, in Tennessee, an opportunity to show the country how to do it and how to address some of the greatest challenges our communities face, whether rural or urban ... and this is a unique opportunity to do that, as well,” Lee said. ‘This center will, I believe, be a national leader in research.”

The goal of the center will be to work with Ballad Health, health care providers, health science experts and others to “identify new mechanisms to improve health in rural and non-urban communities,” with a special emphasis on strategies to reduce inter-generational behaviors like substance abuse, poor diet, smoking and more.

Ballad Health will also contribute more than $15 million to the center over the course of the next decade, according to Ballad CEO Alan Levine. The contribution is the largest in ETSU history and the largest to date for the $120 million capital “Campaign for ETSU” launched in April.

“What you’re going to see result from the creation of this center is the testing of new ideas and new innovations that are community-based, and we think the whole world will be able to learn from what we’re doing here,” Levine said.

During Tuesday’s announcement, ETSU President Brian Noland publicly appointed public health Dean Randy Wykoff to serve as the founding director of the new center. Noland described Wykoff as “one of the world’s most respected leaders in public health.”

“We are increasingly recognizing that one of the greatest health challenges for our region — and our nation — is to interrupt the inter-generational cycles of poor health, lack of education and persistent poverty,” Wykoff said.

“I have no doubt that this center will be successful. I also have no doubt that the challenges will be significant because every statistic that you look at tells us that the challenges of rural America are significantly different than the challenges of urban and suburban America. Our health behaviors are worse, our educational achievement is less, poverty is greater,” Wykoff added. “The challenge for this center is to ask the question, ‘How can we interrupt those intergenerational cycles so that the next generation of kids born in rural Tennessee will be as healthy, wealthy and as educated as any in the country?’”

Wykoff said his first priority will be to hire staff, but the center’s specific location” has not yet been decided.”