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Rural Health & Medicine: The Lack of Healthcare in Rural Areas, Explained


Statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that about 60 million people, or 1 out of 5 people, live in rural America.

For rural Americans to achieve optimal health – as individuals and as a population – they must have access to high-quality healthcare services that are effectively coordinated within a strong healthcare system. This is where rural medicine comes in.

In this article, we discuss:

  • What is rural medicine?
  • Rural vs. urban healthcare
  • Barriers to healthcare for rural America
  • How to improve healthcare in rural America
  • Why doctros should practice real medicine

Read on to learn more.

What is rural medicine?

Rural medicine, also referred to as rural health, is the interdisciplinary study and delivery of healthcare in rural areas. It offers a more personalized approach to healthcare for patients living in rural America. Since most rural communities are close-knit, healthcare providers get to know their patients more easily. The idea of rural medicine integrates many fields, including nursing, midwifery, geography, telemedicine, and telehealth.

Rural vs. urban healthcare

Research shows that people living in rural America have different healthcare needs than those living in urban areas. These disparities are due to geographic, social, economic, demographic, and personal health factors. In general, rural residents tend to be older, poorer, and sicker than urban residents.

Rural areas typically have fewer job opportunities compared to urban areas. The available occupations are normally physical, such as farming, fishing, forestry, and mining. These professions are usually accompanied by higher health and safety risks because of exposure to chemicals, the use of complex machinery, and physical labor.

Although rural workforces report higher rates of severe health conditions and injuries, people living and working in rural areas generally have less access to healthcare compared to their urban counterparts. There are fewer healthcare facilities and medical practitioners in rural areas, which often mean longer response times in emergencies.

Barriers to healthcare for people living in rural america

The types of healthcare services that are frequently difficult to access in rural areas include:

  • Home health services
  • Hospice and palliative care
  • Mental health services
  • Substance abuse services
  • Obstetric services
  • Oral health services

The following are the major barriers to healthcare for people in rural America:

Lack of enough healthcare providers

Even though rural America contains about 20 percent of the country’s population, very few physicians practice in rural areas. As of December 2018, there were over 7,000 areas in the United States with health professional shortages. The majority of the areas with shortages (nearly 60 percent) were in rural areas.

The most regrettable fact is that despite there being a shortage of healthcare facilities in the rural areas, the few hospitals that are already there are at risk of closure. A UNC report indicates that at least 160 rural hospitals have closed between 2005 and 2019.

As baby boomer physicians retire, independent family practices are shutting down, especially in rural areas and small towns. Only a small percentage of medical students in their final year say they are willing to work in rural communities. The younger, millennial physicians consider living in rural areas too expensive or too time-consuming for them. Most of them opt to work at hospitals, rather than to open their own practice.

Geographic barriers

Rural residents have to travel long distances in order to access healthcare. The few healthcare facilities that are available are small and often offer limited services. As a result of geographic distance, lack of public transportation, challenging roads, and extreme weather conditions, patients in rural areas have a hard time accessing healthcare services.

Geographic barriers not only prevent patients from accessing healthcare, but they also prevent emergency medical personnel from reaching patients living in rural areas. Response times by emergency medical personnel are notably higher in rural areas compared to those in urban areas.

The difficulties of access to healthcare due to geographical barriers usually impair outcomes by escalating patients’ physical and emotional stress. The difficulties also reduce the probability of pursuing follow-up care.

Lack of health insurance coverage

Individuals who lack health insurance coverage have less access to healthcare services. Sadly, many rural residents don’t have this crucial coverage. A 2018 U.S. Census Bureau report revealed that about 9.1 percent of people living outside metropolitan statistical areas do not have health insurance coverage.

Even worse news is that some of the rural Americans who have health insurance coverage are at risk of losing their coverage. This will be as a result of the Senate Health Bill that is intended to take away Medicaid coverage from individuals who are not working or engaging in work-related activities for a specified number of hours per month.

Once in effect, the policy will particularly harm rural residents. There are many reasons why it may be harder for rural residents, who heavily on Medicaid, to comply with the new requirements. These reasons range from lack of enough job opportunities to transportation and infrastructure challenges. These barriers will cause many rural residents to lose their health coverage. Lack of access to healthcare service benefits will not only deny rural residents access to health care, but it will also exacerbate economic challenges for rural hospitals and healthcare providers.

How to improve healthcare in rural areas

The shortage of healthcare facilities and professional practitioners in rural areas has forced stakeholders in the healthcare industry to think of unconventional methods of delivering healthcare to rural Americans. This is where telemedicine comes in.

Telemedicine is a practice of medicine that allows for healthcare services to be delivered through telecommunications. Through telemedicine, medical consultations, preventive care, and treatment programs are delivered remotely.

So, how does telemedicine improve healthcare in rural areas? Well, telemedicine has shown to overcome geographical barriers to healthcare services, which results in benefits such as:

  • Increased access to healthcare
  • Improved quality of healthcare delivery
  • Reduced healthcare costs and other associated costs
  • Enhances traditional face-to-face medicine over long distances
  • Improves patient engagement and satisfaction
  • Improves healthcare provider satisfaction

Why practice rural medicine

With the understanding that there is a shortage of healthcare facilities and professional practitioners in rural America, there have been increased efforts to attract healthcare professionals to isolated locations. Even though living in a rural area may not be your initial desire as a physician who’s looking to make a change in practice, there are several benefits that are associated with practicing rural medicine. They include:

  • Rural medicine loan forgiveness: Many rural healthcare facilities are usually willing to offer incentives that are hard to find in most urban settings. One of these incentives is large amounts of student loan debt relief.
  • Higher salaries: Besides getting very large signing bonuses, rural physicians get to enjoy higher salaries compared to their urban counterparts. Studies indicate that the median income for rural doctors is over $200,000, while the median income for urban doctors is $176,000.
  • More time for family and fun: Unlike in urban settings, rural physicians are not tied up at work due to long queues of patients or due to hectic traffic jams. As a rural physician, you’ll always get home early and spend more time with your family.
  • Lower cost of living: The cost of living in rural areas is considerably lower than that of urban living. Therefore, you will make more money and spend less.

Physicians are increasingly opting for a rural lifestyle due to the higher compensation, lower cost of living, and better quality of life. Perhaps it’s an opportune time for you to consider joining this extraordinary group of physicians and make a positive impact in a rural community that is in dire need of a professional just like you.