The Challenges of Healthcare in Rural America

By | April 12, 2017

It is easy to understand why some people receive higher quality healthcare than others. For example, we know that a higher income makes it easier to afford more doctor visits, more preventative screenings and more medicines. Your age, too, might be a factor. Younger people not only need less healthcare, in general, but they might also be taken more seriously by a doctor if they complain about knee pain or any other ailment that would be considered out of the norm for a younger person.

But another growing barrier to receiving adequate healthcare is perhaps a bit more unexpected – geography. People living in rural America have been finding out the hard way that they might not enjoy the same level of care compared to their urban-dwelling counterparts. Central to the disparity are the issues of distance, availability and insurance.

Before we look at why these barriers exist, let’s look at health problems that are more likely in rural America.

  • People in rural areas die at higher rates of heart disease, hypertension, asthma, cancer and diabetes.
  • The population of rural Americans is also an aging one, which means it is more likely to encounter health problems that come with age.
  • Rural Americans are not only more likely to smoke, but they are also more likely to live in areas that lack smoke-free-air laws, and therefore more likely to be exposed to secondhand smoke.
  • Birth injuries are one-third more likely to occur in rural areas compared to urban areas.

Shortages in Doctors and Hospitals

Rural communities are home to one-fifth of the country’s population, though they host only one-tenth of doctors. Practicing medicine in a small town is not necessarily a lucrative prospect for young doctors, and it’s becoming clear that doctors of all types are more likely to practice medicine in more populous regions. This presents a special challenge to those living in smaller communities. Not only do rural Americans have less access to specialists who might be more likely to treat a specific illness or injury, they also have a shortage in general practitioners.

Distance from Healthcare Providers

Living a long distance from doctors or hospitals might make you less likely to seek out healthcare for a seemingly innocuous illness or an injury. But a “lesser” ailment could be indicative of a more significant health problem. For example, a persistent cough might seem like it’s no big deal, but further testing could reveal that it is a sign of respiratory disease or lung cancer.

Distance also makes quick access to healthcare a major challenge. In an emergency, it will take longer for an ambulance or EMS to reach a sick or injured person. Receiving immediate medical attention is difficult for many residents in rural America, who not only live farther away from hospitals, but farther away from emergency medical responders.

It’s also worth noting that the longer one travels to get medical care, the more expensive that care becomes due to transportation costs and possible time away from work. This only compounds the financial challenges facing rural Americans when it comes to the steep costs of healthcare.

Lack of Insurance

Lack of health insurance prompts people to seek less care than they would otherwise, including seeking out preventative health services. People in rural America have less access to Medicaid and are less-likely to be covered by employer-based insurance. While we all know how expensive health insurance can be, not having health insurance can end up being even costlier, in terms of both your health and out-of-pocket expenses that quickly accumulate when you get sick.

There are many challenges facing ill and injured people who don’t have the luxury of living near a healthcare provider. The trends seem to point at a continued and growing disconnect between urban and rural America in the quality of care they receive. As we look for ways to improve our healthcare system to make it more efficient and effective for everyone, we need to pay special attention to the 20 percent of Americans who are farthest away from providers.

About the Author

Bert Louthian is an attorney in Columbia, South Carolina at Louthian Law Firm, P.A.

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