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The COVID-19 pandemic has stretched the capacity of our country’s health system and prompted a re-examination of our public health infrastructure. It has also exacerbated the stark disparities in the delivery of health care and health outcomes for patients.

Among these disparities are the health challenges disproportionately affecting those in rural America. A high quality health system is one in which those living in rural areas, including many parts of West Virginia, have the same opportunity to be healthy regardless of where they live.

To make that a reality, we must recognize that different people in different settings may need different approaches to care. Too often, our system takes a uniform approach to healthcare delivery. We need answers for the healthcare challenges people in Appalachia and other rural areas face every day.

It all comes down to the need to get more useful and evidence-based health information into the hands of patients and those who care for them. That is why we have both championed important health research that focuses on patients’ needs and preferred health outcomes.

In Congress, there has been a bipartisan effort to extend and expand the authority of a critical research funding organization, called the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute. The Institute funds studies addressing many complicated questions, but its primary mission is simple: generate evidence so that people can make more informed health care decisions.

The Institute funds what is called comparative clinical effectiveness research. Such studies look at different approaches to care to see what works best for different people in different circumstances. The goal is more efficient, effective, and patient-centered care that produces better health outcomes while optimizing value.

People in West Virginia stand to benefit greatly from this work. For the past several years, West Virginia has suffered from the highest number of opioid-related overdose deaths in the nation.

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Recent data from the CDC shows that overdose deaths skyrocketed 49% in West Virginia last year as a result of the pandemic. The Institute is working to address this devastating crisis by funding 32 studies of how to improve opioid abuse prevention and treatment. For example, some of these studies are looking at alternatives to opioids that patients and doctors can use to ease chronic pain, and solutions to empower families to help themselves and their loved ones to combat opioid addiction.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also exacerbated an already growing demand for services to address sharply rising rates of mental health conditions, and suicide, in addition to substance abuse. The Institute has made stemming this alarming increase a critical focus. One recent study, for example, compares treatment options and settings to lower the risk of suicide among young adolescents and adults and improve treatment outcomes. It looks at which programs can work best for different groups, such as young men compared with young women, Hispanic compared with non-Hispanic teens, and those at different levels of risk for suicide.

The Institute also funds research addressing other serious illnesses with higher risk of death among adults in rural areas of the country, including heart disease, chronic lower respiratory disease and stroke. The chronic conditions that contribute to these problems—diabetes, hypertension, obesity—are often interconnected and driven by challenges that go beyond health, such as socioeconomic status or simply how far someone lives from a hospital or clinic.

Institute-funded research aims to identify approaches to help patients better manage these conditions and offer strategies for keeping them healthy, hopefully avoiding the need for more involved care.

Finally, we know that whatever the health issue, access to care is a serious challenge for our rural communities, something the COVID-19 pandemic has made clearer than ever before. That is why, in addition to finding more effective care options, the Institute is supporting research on telehealth services to inform options for patients to get the care they need more easily.

Telehealth will remain an essential tool, even after the pandemic, and it is critical that Congress keep up its work to bridge the digital divide to ensure telehealth services can reach all rural areas.

What makes the Institute’s work so important is its focus on putting findings to practice in the real world. Never has that mission been more critical for individuals and families seeking reliable information about a range of pressing healthcare concerns. Our shared goal is to provide answers to make better-informed decisions, because in health care, information truly is power.

Republican Shelley Moore Capito represents West Virginia in the U.S. Senate.

Nakela Cook is executive director of the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute.

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