male doctor in rural area

Rural Areas Struggle to Visit Doctors Consistently Due To Travel Distance

Stephen Umunna Written by Stephen Umunna| January 24, 2024 in Healthcare Distance|0 comments

Access to transportation is a critically important aspect of healthcare usage. It is a growing problem, particularly for patients living in rural areas compared to patients living in urban or suburban communities.

Access to transportation is a critically important aspect of healthcare usage. It is a growing problem, particularly for patients living in rural areas compared to patients living in urban or suburban communities. Patients may have access to a vehicle or public transportation; however, they are less likely to go if they live too far. Depending on where you live, you might have to travel farther to see a doctor.

How Far Do Patients Travel To See A Doctor?

A 2018 Pew Research Center poll has suggested that nearly a quarter of rural-dwelling Americans say that access to quality doctors and hospitals is a significant problem in their community, compared with 18% of city livers and 9% of suburbanites. After collecting their participants' concerns, the study looked at how far each of the three groups must travel in distance and time to see a doctor on average. They found that rural Americans live 10.5 miles (17 minutes) from the nearest hospital on average, compared with 5.6 miles (12 minutes) for suburbanites and 4.4 miles (10 minutes) for those in urban areas.

A 2005 study surveyed more than 1,000 adults in 12 rural Appalachian North Carolina counties and suggested that distance to regular medical care was strongly negatively correlated with the number of regular checkups. On the other hand, the same study found that distance was not a significant factor in determining the amount of chronic care and patient care. One possible reason is that these patients may not deem regular hospital visits essential unless diagnosed with an illness or condition. We must note that infrequent regular checkups make it challenging for the healthcare system to catch the disease or condition early when comparing frequent checkups. This causes the treatment to become more complex, affecting patient outcomes. This causes the treatment to become expensive for the patient, the hospital, and the insurance carrier.

Hospital Closures Affect Travel Distance To A Doctor

A significant concern for rural areas has been the growing closure of hospitals, especially since one in five Americans (65.6 million) lives in a rural area. Since 2010, at least 130 hospitals have closed, making access to a primary care doctor even more challenging. "We follow the convention of the Office of Inspector General that a closed hospital is 'a facility that stopped providing general, short-term, acute inpatient care,'" reads a statement on the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research's website. "We did not consider a hospital closed if it merged with, or was sold to another hospital, but the physical plant continued to provide inpatient acute care, converted to critical access status, or both closed and reopened during the same calendar year and at the same physical location."

How Does Travel Distance And Time Impact Patient Outcome?

In 2017, CNN analyzed a study published in the journal Injury, showing that about 30 million Americans lacked access to trauma care. Their definition of access was 60 minutes driving to a center. According to the CDC, most of those at risk of being far from a trauma center were in rural areas, where the rate of accidental deaths is more than 50% higher than in urban areas. The CDC noted that distance to an emergency room was a key factor.

Also, having these "hospital deserts" means that patients living in rural areas are more likely to die from cancer, heart disease, stroke, and chronic lower respiratory disease than patients living in urban areas. Rural residents are also more likely than urban residents to experience a severe mental illness.

Doctor Shortages In Rural Communities

Because of the growth of hospital closures in the United States, patients living in rural areas must contend with clinician shortages. According to National Rural Health Association statistics, the patient-to-primary care physician ratio in rural areas is 39.8 doctors per 100,000 people, compared to 53.3 doctors per 100,000 in urban areas. The patient-to-primary care physician ratio may worsen over the years due to retirement. A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine suggests that there will be a quarter fewer rural doctors by 2030. Also, between 2002 and 2017, the number of medical school students in rural areas declined by 28%, according to a 2019 study.

"We have seen increasing rural-urban disparities in life expectancy and mortality emerge in the past few years. CDC's focus on these critical rural health issues comes at an important time," said Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) Acting Administrator Jim Macrae.

Why Are Rural Doctors Important?

Rural doctors are essential to the community because they provide the following:

  • Screening of patients for high blood pressure, which is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke. (Stroke mortality is higher in rural than urban areas of the United States, which seems to be because of higher stroke incidence rather than stroke case fatality.)
  • Comprehensive cancer control programs that focus on cancer prevention, screening, early detection, and support. (Death rates are higher in rural areas (180 deaths per 100,000 persons) compared with urban areas (158 deaths per 100,000 persons).)
  • The promotion of physical activity to battle the obesity epidemic in the country. (The obesity rate is significantly higher among adults living in rural counties (34.2 percent) than among those living in metropolitan counties (28.7 percent).)
  • The promotion of smoking cessation. Smoking is strongly correlated with preventable chronic illnesses like lung cancer and COPD. (Incidence rates were higher in rural areas for several diseases, including those related to tobacco use, such as lung cancer, and those that can be prevented by cancer screening, such as colorectal and cervical cancers.)
  • The promotion of motor vehicle safety like seatbelts. (Nineteen percent of people in the United States live in rural areas; however, almost half of the crash deaths occur there.)
  • The promotion of safer prescribing of opioids for chronic pain. (Rates were higher in rural than in urban counties for drug overdose deaths involving natural and semisynthetic opioids (4.9 and 4.3) and psychostimulants with abuse potential (4.0 and 3.1).)

Why Are There Physician Shortages In Rural Areas?

Rural opportunities have fewer working opportunities for doctors' spouses. Also, rural doctors worry that they may not be paid as much in rural communities versus urban areas. A study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that more doctors, physician assistants, and chiropractors can be found in more affluent areas with high life expectancy compared to nurse practitioners who were more likely to practice in lower-income areas with low life expectancy. The researchers identified more than 270,000 primary care doctors, 63,000 nurse practitioners, 47,000 physician assistants, and 43,0000 chiropractors for the study.

Doctor Recruitment From Rural Areas

The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) conducted a detailed report discussing ways to recruit doctors in rural communities. They found two strong predictors that show a doctor will choose rural practice: Specialty and background. Family doctors were likelier than those with less general training to go into rural practice. Also, medical student candidates from rural communities are more likely to practice in rural areas than those with urban backgrounds.

Increase rural rotations and other rural curricular elements in medical schools to keep those from rural areas interested.

Like the University of Kansas School of Medicine, some medical schools have identified and encouraged prospective undergraduate students under the Scholars in Rural Health program, which guarantees admission to those students if they complete college.

The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) wrote an article discussing ways to improve doctors' next generation.

Mobilization Of Doctors To Rural Areas

The Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) School of Medicine and the University of California, Davis School of Medicine have joined forces to create COMPADRE — California Oregon Medical Partnership to Address Disparities in Rural Education and Health — to place more doctors in rural and underserved communities.

Improvement Of Transportation Barriers To Rural Health Clinics

Patients with limited access to transportation may have a more difficult time having someone drive them to the doctor due to the committed time and effort it takes on the bus or person driving the patient. Uber, Lyft, or hospital-subsidized transportation can decrease the reliance on public transport or family. Read more about ridesharing apps and their impact on healthcare access here.

Telemedicine Growth In Rural Areas

Telemedicine has been a growing way for doctors to reach patients far in physical distance and have broadband internet access. According to AmWell's Telehealth Index: 2019 Consumer Survey, 67 percent of patients older than 54 are willing to try virtual care for chronic care visits.

Rural areas have limited access to high-speed broadband internet, with only 69% of the rural regions and 65% of tribal areas having access to high-speed broadband internet that met the minimum benchmark set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This makes it challenging for patients to participate in telehealth consultations, transmit health information to doctors, and monitor their health at home.

In 2019, 71% of rural residents reported owning a smartphone, compared to 83% of suburban and urban residents. There might be an increased limitation with age since only 53% of people over 64 have smartphones. That demographic may struggle to drive far distances in rural areas and require frequent visits.

There is hope, though. In 2018, the FCC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) distributed loans and grants to push for high-speed broadband internet in rural communities. That year, Congress allocated $600 million to the USDA for a new broadband pilot program focusing on cities with 20,000 or fewer populations. Meanwhile, the FCC has distributed nearly $2 billion over ten years as part of its Connect America Fund Phase II.

Telehealth may be one of the several ways to bridge the gap between doctors not living in rural communities and patients. Also, telehealth could help patients see their primary care doctors more often.

How Has COVID-19 Affected Rural Health Care?

The need for increased investment in rural health care has been noticed since the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the United Nations, 90% of COVID-19 cases were concentrated in urban areas. For this reason, people with the economic means with jobs relying on the internet have picked up and moved from large, densely-populated cities like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Chicago, Dallas, and Miami to move to smaller, more sparsely populated suburbs or rural areas like Ulster County, New York. Since people are stuck at home not to transmit the disease, they are leaving the big city, where social distancing is more accessible, and they can get the best bang for their buck in real estate.

People of higher socioeconomic status are more likely already to have delivery subscriptions like Amazon Prime and Walmart+. These services have increased to reduce the need to visit brick-and-mortar stores. When comparing July 2019 to July 2020, Amazon has doubled its profit to $5.2 billion. Because of the shift of online use from people of higher socioeconomic status, telemedicine has become a staple for healthcare professionals to maintain social distancing with their new patients once they move out to rural areas.

Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association has found that caring for patients through telehealth has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, limiting exposure to the virus to healthcare workers. Also, using telehealth in COVID-19-designated inpatient hospital rooms improves communication between clinicians, support services, and patient family members. Limited high-speed internet remains a hurdle in rural areas; however, there is hope that an increase in investment will continue as families move farther into rural places. Thus, this increased investment can improve other chronic diseases like obesity and diabetes, drastically affecting rural areas.

In Conclusion

Rural communities have a unique problem in helping citizens access health care. Health centers struggle to recruit doctors to live in those areas. Hospitals continued to close over the years because of the significant expenses and declining profits in rural hospitals. Public transportation remains a struggle since it is a cost sink due to the lack of population.

The rise of modern technology like ridesharing companies and telemedicine and the forced demand for rural real estate due to COVID-19 have helped rural health centers become more creative in serving their patients. Hopefully, we will see a more significant investment in rural infrastructure like broadband to improve health outcomes and increase healthcare access despite doctors not living in the area.