AN initiative to improve health services in rural communities is being led by the University of Cumbria.
The Cumbria Rural Health Forum (CRHF) has been set up to address some of the unique issues and challenges in delivering effective health and social care in a rural area.
Challenges include people travelling further to access healthcare, managing healthcare for an older rural population and having smaller GP practices.
CRHF is a consortium of currently 37 public and private organisations which are responsible for delivering health and social care in the county.
The organisations are working together to maximise the health of rural communities using new ideas that support the effective and efficient delivery of public health and health and social care in rural areas.
The University of Cumbria has been awarded an £80,000 grant by the Academic Health Science Network for North East and North Cumbria to partly fund the work of CRHF and to implement its projects.
A major scheme identified by the forum is to develop and implement a county-wide strategy around the use of digital technologies.
It believes these can be used to help people access health care services within their own communities, for example using technology to conduct remote patient-doctor consultations and appointments.
Implementation work is a key feature of the project, to include a detailed piece of work with one or more large rural GP practices, to look at how digital technologies can be implemented successfully and to share best practice.
A key objective of the forum is to work with health-related businesses in the private sector, including social enterprises, to help them become more competitive.
Professor Alison Marshall, of the University of Cumbria, is CRHF Chair. She said: "Our research indicates that Cumbria will be the first county in England to have a joined-up, strategic network representing public, private and voluntary sectors, to support and implement shared objectives to improve rural health.
"We are extremely grateful to the Academic Health Science Network for North East and North Cumbria for awarding this substantial grant which will enable the forum to support delivery of appropriate services in Cumbria to its dispersed rural community.
"We have worked closely with all partner organisations to get this programme off the ground and the help we have received has been incredible.
"Both Cumbria Partnership NHS Foundation Trust and Cumbria Clinical Commissioning Group were instrumental in supporting the early stages of development, and we look forward to further collaboration with all forum members."
Cumbria represents almost 50% of the entire land mass of the North West, but only 7% of the region's population lives in the county. Although there are urban centres, the distances between them mean that rural issues affect the whole county.
Professor Marshall added: "The forum recognises the specific issues Cumbria faces as a result of its rural setting - for example people have to travel further to hospitals or GP practices for appointments, there is a greater reliance on volunteer services, and some healthcare staff may feel professionally isolated.
"There is an urgent need to address these problems in a coordinated manner. All partner organisations in CRHF are committed to working together to provide a sound infrastructure which supports our health and social care services, and in turn improves the quality of services for rural communities in Cumbria."
For more information on the Cumbria Rural Health Forum, visit www.ruralhealthlink.co.uk.
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