Wherever you fit into health care — whatever kind of hospital or health system, ambulatory clinic, physician office, public health department, post-acute care provider or any other entity in the care continuum — no doubt you’ve been a little jittery these past several years as regulatory and market forces — from payment to population health, from the aging of the baby boomers to the rise of health care consumerism — transform our field. Now, given the imminent changes in federal leadership, the uncertainty is more intense than ever.

Nowhere is the uncertainty more widespread and the craving for clarity more potent than among rural hospitals. 

As noble as the goals of transformation are — bending the cost curve, improving the quality of patient care and promoting community health — getting there is profoundly complex and expensive. Rural hospitals have always been challenged when it comes to recruiting physicians and other staff and by the fact that disproportionately large percentages of the populations they serve are older, less affluent and dependent on public health care coverage. Changes in public and private reimbursement models, mandates to collect more and more data, and the need to invest in costly new technologies pose new hurdles for already overburdened rural hospital executives and trustees.

Which is why the 30th annual Rural Health Care Leadership Conference is the place to be Feb. 5–8. For one thing, that place is Phoenix. I don’t know where you live, but here in Chicago, Phoenix in February sounds pretty darn inviting.

More to the point, the conference, presented by the American Hospital Association and Health Forum, provides an opportunity for people who lead and work in rural health care settings to come together to share their stories, discuss their options, gain insights from experts and learn how colleagues from across the country are coping with and actively confronting the new realities affecting their world.

I’ve been to past conferences, and what always impresses me is the level of engagement among those in attendance. Maybe it’s the small-town unpretentiousness and we're-all-in-this-together spirit, but at the meetings I've attended, nobody was reluctant to take part in conversations with fellow attendees and presenters. And those conversations could get lively.

This year’s program is particularly robust, with presentations by some of health care’s leading lights, including Jamie Orlikoff, Molly Coye and Todd Linden. AHA President and CEO Rick Pollack will moderate a discussion about ensuring access to care in vulnerable communities. And there’s a whole track of sessions devoted to the issues facing rural hospital trustees.

I know it’s cutting it a little close, but if you can make it to Phoenix, sign up at www.healthforum-edu.com/rural/.

Whether or not you attend, Genevieve Diesing and Brian Frankie from our staff here at Hospitals & Health Networks and Trustee magazines will be covering the conference every day in H&HN Daily. Watch for their dispatches at www.hhnmag.com/rural17