Compared to urban populations, rural Americans have shorter life expectancies and significantly worse health outcomes. And these disparities are only getting worse. It’s well-known that there are significant barriers to patient care in rural America. While there are multiple reasons for these discrepancies, one primary reason is inadequate access to health care.
The number of rural Americans is not a trivial number, as it accounts for nearly one-fourth of the total U.S. population.
Providers face shortages of supplies and trained personnel, and patients face long distances and wait times.
And that’s just the beginning.
Health Consequences in Rural America
Living in rural America has many advantages, including a higher perceived quality of life. However, it’s also home to some of our country's most vulnerable populations. Patients living in these areas face significant barriers to quality care, one of the biggest being simply not enough healthcare providers to meet their needs. This shortage leads to long wait times for appointments and long distances traveled for care.
Rural Americans face higher mortality rates from the 5 leading causes of death in the U.S.: heart disease, respiratory disease, cancer, strokes, and accidental injuries. Additionally, they face higher maternal and infant mortality rates, as well as higher suicide rates.
The reasons for these poorer outcomes are varied. Providers lack personnel and adequate resources to treat their patients. This is worsened when supply chain and labor shortages occur. All of this can be exacerbated during a healthcare crisis, like the Coronavirus-19 pandemic.
Rural hospitals & facilities feel the pain too - often, they are forced to close their doors due to financial difficulties. A study by the Sheps Center for Health Services Research and the Texas Health and Human Services department showed that between 2005 and 2021, 24 rural hospitals have closed in the state of Texas alone (Source: Sheps Center, link below).
Barriers to Patient Care
Rural Americans face a host of challenges when it comes to receiving care. From a lack of access to quality healthcare to the barriers posed by distance and transportation, patients in rural areas often struggle to get the care they need. It can have serious consequences on their health and well-being.
The most significant barriers to care in rural areas are:
1) Lack of basic health care facilities
The primary challenge that patients in rural America face is a lack of access to quality health care. Of the 2,000 counties in the U.S. designated as rural, roughly half do not have a hospital that provides maternal/neonatal care, and nearly 10% of those counties lack an acute care hospital or health clinic of any kind. (www.hrsa.gov). As a result, patients are often unable to receive the personalized care they need.
For example, The American Academy of Family Physicians reports that even specialties like Emergency Medicine are often unavailable in rural communities simply because those communities do not have the population density to support a residency trained Emergency Physician. (Source: AAFP, link below). This situation is only worsened for other specialties.
2) Transportation issues
Patients in rural areas often are required to travel long distances to get to the nearest hospital or clinic. It can be a challenge for those with inadequate transportation, especially if they need to make multiple trips for their care.
Rarely are public transportation options available. Traveling long distances are particularly problematic for the elderly or those with disabilities. Additionally, patients typically must wait extended times for ambulance services should they be required.
3) Limited access to technology
There is often a lack of access to the latest medical technology in rural America. Many rural hospitals cannot afford new equipment or do not have adequately trained staff to operate it, even if they had it. This is a major challenge for patients who need specialized care and for providers who want to deliver the same quality of service as their urban counterparts.
Limited access to technology doesn’t just affect providers. According to a Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults conducted from Jan. 25 to Feb. 8, 2021, rural adults are less likely to own home broadband, a smartphone, or a tablet/computer than their urban counterparts. Furthermore, current infrastructure still does not support fully consistent and reliable broadband access in many rural areas (Source: Pew Research, link below).
There are many diverse challenges that patients in rural America face when trying to access healthcare. From transportation issues to limited access to technology, these patients struggle more than most to get the care they need. To achieve significant improvements in the health outcomes of rural populations, the barriers they face must be addressed.
At Infiniwell.ai, we provide multiple personal health monitoring solutions. Our goal is to accelerate better healthcare anywhere. This includes rural health, as our technology enables providers to remotely monitor patients wherever they are. We will be showcasing our solutions at the Texas Organization of Rural & Community Hospitals (TORCH) conference April 19-21, 2022 at the Hyatt Regency in Dallas, TX. Please visit us there or reach out to us on LinkedIn or at www.infiniwell.ai!
David Bragg, MD,