Across the vast healthcare landscape in the United States, there will always be areas of particular need as compared to others, or particular populations that don’t have adequate access to healthcare.
A forefront challenge for healthcare leaders and policymakers is trying to correct these disparities and make healthcare more accessible for those who are currently underserved.
In today’s current healthcare climate, rural areas throughout the country can sometimes represent some of the most disadvantaged populations when it comes to adequate healthcare access.
Because of this, better serving rural communities should be a primary concern for healthcare decision-makers.
- Barriers to Access: Why Healthcare is Harder in Rural Areas
- Greater Distances Exist Between Stakeholders in the Process
- Many People in Rural Areas Do Not Have Access to Technology or Digital Connections
- Poverty, Illiteracy, and Other Disadvantages are Pervasive Realities for Many Rural Communities
- Sustaining Healthcare Facilities in Rural Areas Can Be Very Difficult
- Ways to Change the Status Quo
- Utilize more Telehealth and Mobile Technologies in the Healthcare Provision Process
- Increase Practice Authority for Nurse Practitioners
- Lobby for More Payment Incentives and Education Loan Forgiveness Programs
- Develop Healthcare Ambassador and Awareness Programs
Barriers to Access: Why Healthcare is Harder in Rural Areas
Several factors contribute to this reality. Because of these widespread trends, the quality and accessibility of rural healthcare are statistically hampered.
Here are a few of the biggest problems that create difficulties for delivering rural healthcare as compared to other areas.
Greater Distances Exist Between Stakeholders in the Process
Rural areas are often agricultural, mountainous, or other varied topographical regions.
These naturally spread individuals that live there across larger distances than would separate individuals in urban settings.
This necessitates longer travel times between individuals and healthcare facilities, longer wait times for those in emergencies before paramedics or healthcare personnel can arrive, and the impossibility of walking to facilities or utilizing public transportation.
For individuals who don’t own a car or who can no longer drive, these realities sometimes mean they have no feasible way of accessing a healthcare facility.
Many People in Rural Areas Do Not Have Access to Technology or Digital Connections
In some areas of the country where cell phone service is largely unreliable and internet connectivity is still limited to modems or low-level bandwidth, it can sometimes be virtually impossible to quickly get hold of doctors or other healthcare providers.
This is not only frustrating and inconvenient but can be extremely dangerous and even life-threatening, especially for individuals with heightened health risks or who are approaching older ages.
Poverty, Illiteracy, and Other Disadvantages are Pervasive Realities for Many Rural Communities
Illiteracy and poverty affect every facet of an individual’s life.
These realities can limit or prevent access to travel or transportation, make it impossible to access information about healthcare offerings or best practices, limit the ability to elevate one’s working or living conditions, and make change exceedingly difficult.
These conditions make healthcare very difficult for individuals to access, and also make it more difficult for public health and health facilities to serve or inform their community members.
Sustaining Healthcare Facilities in Rural Areas Can Be Very Difficult
It has proven fiscally impossible to maintain countless facilities in rural areas over the past decade.
Many have concluded operations and sent their staff, equipment, and referrals to larger facilities in different areas.
While it can sometimes be strategic to consolidate facilities to make them more sustainable, this also means that access to local healthcare ceases to be a reality for community members that must drive much larger distances to survive.
In these cases, many people who would have engaged with healthcare provision (especially in the forms of regular or preventative screenings and visits) discontinue that engagement, drastically increasing the likelihood that health problems or conditions that would have been simple to address at an early stage take on more aggressive or serious characteristics.
These ultimately lead to illnesses or even premature mortalities later in life that could have been prevented.
Ways to Change the Status Quo
The difficulties mentioned above can be formidable and widespread. However, there are several ways that the healthcare system can change tactics to reach rural populations more strategically and effectively.
Utilize more Telehealth and Mobile Technologies in the Healthcare Provision Process
Though a lack of adequate connectivity or bandwidth can sometimes be a detrimental hurdle to this strategy, more and more remote areas are now able to access at least workable internet speeds.
Telehealth and digital health technologies are a fast-growing area of healthcare provision that make it possible to reach populations that have historically struggled to receive care.
They also make amenities like diagnostic tests and monitoring services more possible than they ever have been before, even when an individual cannot access a medical facility.
These advances are making telehealth appointments and virtual testing, monitoring, and health practice increasingly viable.
Utilizing more digital healthcare provision tactics can lessen distance and accessibility barriers for many rural communities.
Increase Practice Authority for Nurse Practitioners
In states where Nurse Practitioners (NPS) and other medical professionals are limited in what medical services they are allowed to administer, the burden for providing or overseeing the majority of care tasks falls to physicians and Medical Doctors (MD’s).
When these are in short supply, loosening restrictions on what NP’s are allowed to perform can mean they can provide more of the care that doesn’t need to require a higher certification level.
Lobby for More Payment Incentives and Education Loan Forgiveness Programs
Loan forgiveness programs and salary perks are tools the Federal government (and some private institutions) can employ to encourage more medical professionals to seek jobs in rural communities.
These types of initiatives can create larger numbers of care providers and ease understaffing issues that many rural medical care facilities face.
Develop Healthcare Ambassador and Awareness Programs
One characteristic of rural communities isn’t often present in other location types and can be leveraged to encourage better healthcare practice.
Rural communities tend to have stronger relational ties amongst their members.
People are often more aware of each other, more integrated into their communities, and often give more weight to informal and relationally-based encouragements towards awareness or behavioral change than other community types.
Because of this, healthcare providers and facilities might consider relationship-based approaches to public health concerns and healthcare advocacy in rural communities, particularly for concerns like encouraging more members of the community to engage in preventative screenings and regular check-ups.
This requires some legwork and integration into these communities but can pay dividends in community members engaging more effectively with healthcare provision.
Though rural communities face formidable barriers to healthcare access, there are lots of ways available to begin overcoming these hurdles and making sure that everyone across the United States can access adequate healthcare.
Sandra is a health blogger based in San Diego, California. She is passionate about living a healthy lifestyle. She loves being outdoors and exploring new places with her husband. She is a mom of two awesome kids and a dog named Luna!