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Arnold School of Public Health

National Rural Health Association selects Melinda Merrell to join Rural Health Fellows Program

February 12, 2020 | Erin Bluvas,

Melinda Merrell, a research assistant professor with the Rural and Minority Health Research Center, has been selected by the National Rural Health Association (NRHA) to join the 2020 cohort of the organization’s Rural Health Fellows Program. Designed to prepare emerging rural health experts for leadership roles in advancing the health of rural America, the program provides fellows with intensive training. 

Although Merrell is in year one of her first academic appointment (she joined the Arnold School in July of 2019), she has more than a decade of experience in the rural health field. An Alabama native, Merrell studied biology (bachelor of science) and then health behavior (master of public health) at the University of Alabama at Birmingham before moving to South Carolina in 2008. 

She spent two years as the network coordinator for three rural counties with the Northeastern Rural Health Network and then joined the South Carolina Office of Rural Health. Over the next nine years, Merrell held the positions of director of hospital programs, director of quality innovation, and senior program director – often working closely with the Arnold School and many other partners.

In 2014, Merrell enrolled in the Ph.D. in Health Services Policy and Management (HSPM) program – pursuing her degree in parallel with her work at the Office of Rural Health until her 2019 graduation. The previous collaborations and the opportunity to work with the Rural and Minority Health Research Center (previously known as the South Carolina Rural Health Research Center) made the transition a seamless one. During this time, she received her department’s Cindy Babb Moore Excellence in Rural Health Management Fellowship Award (2018) and the National Organization of State Offices of Rural Health Emerging Leader Award (2015).

“I started my Ph.D. journey while working full time at the South Carolina Office of Rural Health with the intention of eventually leveraging my degree to influence health policy,” Merrell says. “I found myself looking for an opportunity where I could use my field experience to inform and conduct health services research that would be relevant for rural health care policy. When a position at the Rural and Minority Health Research Center opened up, I knew it was the kind of opportunity I was looking for. The Center and the Arnold School are now both a part of the realization of the goal I set out to accomplish at the start of my Ph.D. journey – and I am so thankful for the support I have received as a student and now, as a faculty member.”

Her recently awarded fellowship with the nation’s leading rural health advocacy organization will provide further fuel to this juncture in Merrell’s career. She’s looking forward to becoming even more involved with the NRHA, where she has been a member for the past decade. She also sees the fellowship program as a critical opportunity for gaining experience in rural health care policy.

“Each year, the Fellows cohort learns about a number of key rural health issues, dissecting the specifics of each issue and developing an understanding of the policy levers that may be useful in creating change,” Merrell says. “I see this program as one way for me to learn to apply my research findings to the policy and advocacy process.”

Between the fellowship and her new role at the Arnold School, Merrell feels well-prepared to pursue her passion: assuring access to essential health care services in rural communities. This involves investigating what happens when rural health care facilities close and exploring innovative models that can sustain preventive, primary and emergency care in rural communities.


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