Can rural health care be saved?

There are many disparities in health care. Black mothers have a much higher rate of maternal death than do white women. All women are less likely to get guideline-advised cardiac care than do men. Among the many such examples, perhaps the hardest disparity to solve is that of the poorer access to health care faced by rural communities. People living in rural counties have higher death rates from cancer and heart disease than their urban counterparts, and there are more deaths from opioid overdose. Rural hospitals are closing every week, leaving their communities with less local access to needed services. Physicians practicing in rural communities are older and are not being replaced as they retire.

To keep small hospitals open, the federal government created the Critical Access Hospital program in 1997 that pays more to small (25 or fewer beds) and isolated (at least 35 miles from another hospital) hospitals. A friend who is an experienced nurse once told me she thought this was akin to the Chrysler bail-out, and these hospitals provided poor care and should be allowed to close. Many studies have documented poorer processes of care at small hospitals compared to larger ones. It is certainly true that small rural hospitals do not provide the same level of service as do larger hospitals. They have few specialists and rarely have anything close to a critical care unit for truly sick patients.

I remember an experience from many years ago. I was moonlighting in the emergency department of a small isolated hospital when a patient came in with an obvious acute appendicitis that looked about to rupture. Unfortunately, the only surgeon on staff was quite inebriated after a night of partying and clearly in no shape to even drive to the hospital, never mind operate. The weather was foul, and getting the patient to another hospital was going to be dangerous, so the nursing staff convinced me, a cardiology fellow, to operate. Luckily the OR nurses knew more about the procedure than I did, and I had assisted on a few appendectomies in medical school, so the patient survived, but at a larger hospital, this dilemma would never have arisen.

What can be done? Better transportation would help. In truly isolated areas, air ambulances may be needed. Under our current system, these are often exorbitantly expensive and a common source of “surprise medical bills” that run $10,000+ for non-Medicare patients. State governments and/or referral hospitals should establish fairly-priced air ambulance services if they cannot get commercial providers to bring down their prices. More use of telemedicine would help, both in providing specialty consultation to the small hospitals and in allowing patients to avoid long drives. It has been found that pre-hospital personnel, EMTs and paramedics, can often avoid taking a patient to the hospital if they have telephone back-up at the scene. Consolidation of rural hospitals to provide more of a critical mass of physicians might require longer drive times but would provide better care in return. Medical schools should recruit more students from small communities, as graduates are much more likely to serve their own or similar communities than are students from an urban background.

In the meantime, if you are contemplating a move to the bucolic countryside after retirement, look carefully at the medical resources that would be available when you need them.

Edward Hoffer is an internal medicine physician and author of Prescription for Bankruptcy: A doctor’s perspective on America’s failing health care system and how we can fix it. He blogs at What’s wrong with health care in America?

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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