Rural Health Scholars program present new findings

UMass students suggest better communication and collaboration among Island’s six towns.

David Runyan and Gianna Dipinto gave their report for this year's Rural Scholars Presentation at the West Tisbury Library Friday. —Hayley Duffy

This year’s Rural Health Scholars’ presentation took place at the West Tisbury library on Friday, and was hosted by David Runyan and Gianna Dipinto, both of whom graduated from UMass Chan Medical School two Sundays ago with their doctorates in nursing practice.

Introduced by Dr. Daniel Pesch, chair of the Rural Scholars committee and obstetrician-gynecologist at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, the graduates have participated in this program for three years. 

The program, developed in 2009 by the Dukes County Health Council (DCHC) member Murray Frank, is led by a DCHC subcommittee in partnership with the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine and School of Nursing. Students come to the Island annually to investigate an issue and present their findings to the community. This is their 19th year.

The program “is designed to nurture the interest of students who want to explore practice in rural and small-town communities,” Dipinto said.

This year’s presentation diverged from previous projects, however. Rather than focus on a singular topic to study a key population health issue, they analyzed recommendations from past projects from 2014 to 2022, and identified six key themes.

The duo then interviewed 30 stakeholders, who represent 24 unique Island organizations, for at least an hour over a two-week period to understand which recommendations have been implemented, which haven’t, and why they’ve not worked, or stalled.

Their research found that a lack of collaboration and sharing of resources, efforts, and ideas between all six towns remains the crux of continued progress on the Island. 

There’s a need to learn how to communicate effectively, Runyan said.

Based on their interviews, 72 percent of Islanders thought the Vineyard’s best success is a great sense of community.

“I’ve never seen that anywhere else,” Dipinto said. “We heard that in almost every single interview.”

But they also abstracted areas where improvements have to be made.

Ninety-two percent of people said a lack of peer communication and collaboration stands in the way of achieving goals, and 80 percent found that segregation between towns impacts the Island’s success.

A lot of resources exist here that people aren’t aware of, Runyan said.

Their recommendations included that the appropriation of funds should be consistent with the needs and strategic priorities of the community, and emphasized continued focus on strengthening Island resources and services. Key stakeholders do want to work together, they said, but community leaders need to take charge.

They also recommended utilizing contributions from the healthcare sector for preventive care initiatives, like nutrition education, recreation and exercise accessibility, and support for year-round shelters.

For example, when active summary visits are handed to discharged hospital patients, food insecurity resources could be included in the packet, Dipinto said.

They also recommended that the Island prioritize interorganizational collaboration, and suggested an annual celebration for the whole Island to celebrate their accomplishments, promote networking, and build community connections. Runyan and Dipinto proposed the symposium be called “MV-One.”

The two recent graduates proposed the Island also invest in an information infrastructure that might resemble the defunct FirstStop, an online database that didn’t have the funding to continue, but was previously run by Martha’s Vineyard Community Services.

They also suggested that the All-Island Select Board reconvene; Runyan believes it hasn’t met since before the pandemic.

Rumor has it that a pie lady in Aquinnah would make pie for the All-Island Select Board, and that’s the only place board members would show up, Runyan said. “I’ll bake a pie for the first meeting.”

James Hagerty, Edgartown town administrator, said a few years have passed since the group, which is more of an advisory committee, has convened.

“The problems that remain are big,” Runyan said, and include housing, transportation, and food equity. “No one organization is going to be able to fix them all … It’s the connections that drive change here.”

Runyan and Dipinto concluded their presentation by quelling fears that the scholars program was stopping its Island research. “Don’t fear you’ll lose our research,” Runyan said.

A curriculum change meant they did not present a report in 2023, but students will come to the Island this fall; however, they may be medical students, not nursing students.

Runyan and Dipinto then thanked Islanders for welcoming them back each year.

Before Dipinto started with the program, she knew the Vineyard by ice cream and the Black Dog, but her research as a student at UMass has completely changed her perspective. “I didn’t know the people could be so beautiful,” she said.


  1. I atteneded the presentation last week and am inclined to agree with what Sarah Kuh perfectly articulated to the group then assembled at the library: interorganizational collaboration is not by a longshot the biggest problem facing the Island’s collective well-being. I work for a Federally Qualified Community Health Center where we are mandated to serve the underserved. We do so by reaching across all aisles to embrace many partners to see that our mission aligns with FQHC best practices. Which means along the way we fully collaborate with all Island stakeholders big and small: e.g. MV Hospital, MV Community Services, The Vineyard House, Island Food Pantry, Harbor Homes, MV Regional High School, the Charter School, the House of Corrections, The Red House RSC, Island Counseling Center….to name but (not just) a few. To suggest that there are impenetrable silos in place may have made sense 6 years ago, but from my purview? That was then and this is now. As for organizational infrastructure? How about our wildly popular Substance Use Disorder Coalition? Talk about collaboration! And not once, to my knowledge, was it mentioned in the group’s findings. And that’s a crying shame.

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