For nearly 60 million Americans living in rural areas of the country, getting access to quality health care can be a significant challenge — and the need is greater than ever. From the disproportionate impact of the opioid crisis in rural communities to the economic, structural and social barriers to mental health care in these areas, it is fair to say that rural America faces significant obstacles in health care. That is certainly the case in the rural Midwest.
Fortunately, using new technologies and innovation in how health care is delivered, health plans have been at the forefront of addressing some of the toughest problems with providing health care to rural communities.
Many of the problems that everyday Americans experience accessing health care are magnified in rural areas. The sheer distances many people live from doctors or hospitals means that seeing a doctor can be an all-day affair. And the problem of proximity is only getting worse.
Of the hospitals that serve rural communities, 20% are at risk of closing due to the high costs of operating in rural areas. This isn’t just a problem in emergencies; it also means less preventive care like vaccinations and cancer screenings, along with less mental health and addiction counseling. Without such preventive services, health problems grow from manageable problems into serious complications.
Adding to these problems, social barriers of health tend to also be worse in rural communities. Things not necessarily considered health care — such as a stable housing situation and consistent access to healthy food — tend to be more difficult to come by.
And on top of it all, rural Americans are aging. One quarter of Americans over the age of 65 live in rural areas. While each individual ages differently, it is generally true that the older people get, the more complications they experience with their health.
The list goes on and on, but the fact is each of these problems reinforces the others, making for a perfect storm of problems and an increased need for health care access in rural America.
The good news is we’ve made leaps and bounds in recent decades to close the rural-urban gap in health care provision in this country, and health plans are, and have been, leading the charge.
In particular, expanding and improving telehealth services has been an incredibly important aspect of closing the sometimes-vast physical distances to care in rural America. Of course, there are many parts of providing health care that require in-person consultation, but screening in advance is making delivering care more efficient for both patients and providers. Not to mention the improved management of chronic conditions that telehealth services have proven to provide. For some of the most pressing issues facing Americans living in rural communities, telehealth services have been a lifeline — literally.
Treatment for both substance abuse disorder and various types of behavioral and mental health care lend themselves quite well to telemedicine. When the problem is not a lack of access to a physical procedure, but instead a need for counseling, diagnosis or information from a medical professional, newly improved and expanded telehealth services have saved lives. While one-on-one in person is always preferable for receiving care, that is not always an option in rural communities and why telehealth is bridging the gap for many who would otherwise not receive the care they critically need.
Importantly, in cases where telehealth services are inadequate due to still-developing technology infrastructure, health plans have increasingly made connecting patients with physicians a top priority. For example, transportation services facilitate trips to facilities for individuals and families who may have previously faced difficulties making the trip.
Policymakers, health plans, community partners and other leaders in health care, can work together to continue expanding access to health care that rural Americans need — both through new technologies and a patient-first approach to problem solving. Sometimes it feels like the deck is stacked against us, but all over the country, rural Americans — farmers, ranchers, small-business owners and everyone in between — are benefitting from the increasing value of health plans.