Aaron Beswick, MSW/MPH ’15: Addressing Health Disparities in Rural America

Alumni; Community Engagement; Public Health

As a graduate student, Aaron Beswick focused much of his study on underserved urban communities and the health disparities that resulted. Now, as a health policy analyst, he’s tackling disparities in rural America. And he’s found the two populations have much in common, whether it’s a dearth of at-home care for seniors or opioid addiction.

“I started to see the urban-rural connections,” he said. “The issues of poverty are similar; the lack of resources and community distress is the same.”

After graduating in 2015 with a dual MSW/MPH degree, Beswick joined the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy as a public health analyst focused on providing access to healthcare for underserved people in rural America. The office in Chicago is regional headquarters for the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Navigating the behemoth that is the U.S. government healthcare system has been challenging but satisfying work. Beswick studies federal regulations to determine their impact on rural communities and then helps make recommendations to improve the rules.

One example: Rural communities tend to have few options for home-based care as an alternative to nursing homes.  HHS is offering funding for innovative approaches to long-term care that focus on outcomes rather than services, but hospitals – where much rural senior care is provided – were initially left out of the equation.  “Our office worked to figure out a way these experiments could work in rural, hospital-based nursing homes,” he said.

Beswick recently changed direction in the Chicago office, joining a six-person team that responds to the opioid crisis in rural communities, where it is especially prevalent. He is helping to distribute funding for rural communities to address the issue, offering him a ground-level experience.

“It’s different, for sure,” he said. “I’m seeing another side of HRSA, with grants and intervention. It’s so timely, so dire for the country right now.”

The effort is the Rural Communities Opioid Response Program, which will distribute $19 million in planning grants to 95 communities in support of coalitions working to address the problem. Beswick is reading applications to support the grantees and help them problem-solve in a guidance role. The team will also be thinking about next steps to put additional dollars in play.

Beswick’s policy education and experience at the Brown School included work with the Ferguson Commission, the St. Louis Department of Health and the Missouri House of Representatives. Professor Tim McBride encouraged him to consider public health work in rural communities.

The Brown School made his transition to his current work a smooth one.

“I was prepared well for how people’s social and economic conditions affect their health; it’s a connection more people are seeing closely now.  The Brown School helped me understand that, as well as the importance of being part of a team.” He also cited the school’s focus on a transdisciplinary approach.  “Public health and social work are constellations of other fields.  Understanding that each is connected and being able to speak languages across disciplines is something the Brown School emphasizes,” he said.

Beswick appreciates the opportunity to work at the policy level and on the ground where policies make an impact. The Brown School helped him connect the two, and think through solutions.

“It’s that person-in-environment perspective, thinking about people’s full experience across different levels – individual, family, community.  That’s a lot to think about, but that’s how we were taught to understand people’s behaviors.  So when people are making choices, those decisions are rooted in their environment and a response to what’s happening around them and often to them.”