Americans living in rural areas face challenges in their healthcare system. These difficulties are immeasurably different than healthcare challenges in more urban areas. Providers and patients in rural areas face a unique combination of factors: geographic access, economic inequity, and a shortage of healthcare professionals are among the biggest difficulties.
Rural Americans make up more than 20% of the U.S. population. Prior to the COVID-19 healthcare crisis, there was already a shortage of healthcare professionals in the rural U.S. Access in places like Arthur, Nebraska is challenging, with the nearest hospital being 40 miles away in Ogallala.
Now, in the middle of this viral outbreak, rural hospitals and patients are seeing even more limits in healthcare access.
Increased Challenges for Rural Healthcare
Rural health challenges
Unlike urban hospitals and facilities, rural facilities have limitations due to geographic access. Transportation issues can often arise when trying to reach a healthcare provider in a rural area. Rural healthcare access in places like Arthur, Nebraska is challenging, with the nearest hospital being 40 miles away in Ogallala. Barriers in transportation often result in missed appointments, rescheduling recurring and continued care, and missing or delaying medications a patient may need to properly manage their health at home. These barriers can become serious problems that lead to long-term negative health results for rural Americans.
Besides traveling great distances to reach a doctor or hospital, there are economic barriers that perpetuate the rural healthcare coverage issue. An article from Ruralhealthweb.org discusses the connection between local hospitals and rural economy. According to a January 2017 report from the American Hospital Association, each dollar spent by a hospital supports roughly $2.30 of additional business activity in that community or city. And for rural areas, this connection between hospital and economy is more impactful, since hospitals are usually the main employer of a rural community.
The rural healthcare workforce is lower in rural areas as a result of these economic challenges. Simply put, if there isn’t a hospital, there isn’t a need for staff. And even so, if the money and job need isn’t present, professionals will go elsewhere. Prior to the viral outbreak, there was already a shortage of healthcare professionals in rural facilities, but as supply and worker shortages loomed during spikes of the coronavirus, it was rural facilities that we’re left scratching their heads, already a leg down in this battle.
If that weren’t enough, it is worth noting that even though rural areas share similar challenges as a whole, each geographic area can present its own problems, varying the degrees in limitations and additional factors, such as inclement weather, adding a whole new dimension to the mix. Healthcare provider shortages can also vary geographically for rural dwellers, depending on the area of the U.S.
What rural healthcare needs
With such a long list of hurdles leading off the conversation, its surprising that we’re not deeper down the rabbit hole, especially among the viral outbreak of COVID-19. The good news is, there are solutions. Telehealth seems like a good answer. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are developing programs to combat the hurdles of rural healthcare, including telehealth projects and management programs.
Still, some rural health centers are unable to take advantage of the benefits of telehealth without the right connectivity, resources or staff to help out. Surely, a bump in the road that will need leveling.
Another solution lies with traveling medical professionals. A growing need of temp staff and travelers has been growing throughout the years. But how does an understaffed rural facility keep the attention and interest of travelers? New technology, competitive salary and incentives are never off the table, but it all comes down to money to be able to make these things happen, and for that, the cycle repeats until someone can give rural healthcare a boost.
While everyone is deeply affected by the healthcare challenges we currently face during COVID-19, it’s worth noting that rural healthcare shouldn’t be left wringing their hands. Healthcare needs solutions and staff quickly.