According to the U.S. Census Bureau, over 60 million Americans live in rural areas. That’s roughly 1 in 5 people in the United States. Despite making up such a significant percentage of the population, rural Americans face substantial obstacles when it comes to accessing healthcare. Between remote locations, limited workforces, doctor shortages, and hospital closures, the state of rural healthcare has declined significantly in the last 20 years.
These problems don’t just affect rural residents; they also strain the entire healthcare system. Patients have specific and often chronic health problems that aren’t getting addressed. That results in higher costs at hospitals and lower quality of care across the board.
It’s time for both urban and rural America to come together in support of comprehensive rural healthcare advocacy.
Health challenges rural areas face
Research from the CDC highlights the challenges those in rural areas face. They are more likely than those who live in urban areas to die from:
- heart disease
- unintentional injury
- chronic lower respiratory disease
- unintentional injury deaths (this is often linked to motor vehicle crashes and opioid overdoses)
Those who live in rural areas of the United States also “tend to be older and sicker than their urban counterparts.”
Improving rural health policy and health systems means rethinking what it means to serve communities.
Essential rural healthcare advocacy activity
Let’s take a look at 5 essential advocacy tips:
1) Provide equal access to high-quality healthcare
120 rural hospitals have vanished in the last decade. Over 450 are at risk of closure. Rural or urban, it’s imperative to individual and community health that all Americans have access to the care and health information they need.
2) Improve workforce management
A major challenge to delivering quality healthcare in rural communities is the scarcity of qualified medical professionals. Urban residents have access to more primary care physicians and specialists compared to rural residents.
Addressing these shortages must include:
- Assessing patient volumes: Some communities have too much demand for medical care for a single physician to provide. This can easily lead to physician burnout. Other communities may not have enough residents to sustain a practice, causing providers to move elsewhere.
- Considering reimbursement rates: As rural communities typically have higher Medicare and Medicaid patients, physicians receive a lower reimbursement rate compared to commercially insured patients. This further exacerbates financial constraints and disincentives to practice in rural America.
- Exploring quality of life concerns: Healthcare providers face the same challenges as rural Americans accessing resources and enjoying cultural opportunities. With limited employment options for spouses and other issues, living in a small town can be less desirable compared to urban centers.
3) Increase access to telehealth options
Geographic remoteness can be remedied through telehealth by expanding access to care. Two types of telehealth have proven especially promising: electronic consultation and telemedicine.
Electronic consultations facilitate rural patients’ access to specialized care by connecting primary care physicians with specialists. It can be effective for patients, and it can also help primary care providers develop sub-specialties over time through working with different professional groups.
Telemedicine directly connects specialists to patients and has similar accessibility benefits. It can also foster increased patient satisfaction and cost-saving measures. Increased broadband access for remote communities is crucial in making telehealth more accessible to rural areas.
4) Improve care coordination
Care coordination programs look at patients holistically to better deliver care while reducing unnecessary costs. Models may integrate other treatments, including dental and behavioral care.
Through organizing comprehensive coordination, taking more patient-centered approaches, and “encouraging patients to take a more active role in their health and their care,” individual patients as well as communities can be better served.
5) Enhance financial management and coding
With proper revenue cycle management, coding, and clinical documentation, hospitals’ revenue can cover their bottom line. Through creating patient advocates that connect underinsured and uninsured residents to benefit programs, they can ensure people receive the care they need while ensuring hospitals have a source of funding.
Like all facilities, rural hospitals need access to the latest healthcare technologies as well as experts who know how to use them. These resources can optimize reimbursements, help organizations maintain sustainable results in quality and compliance, better manage denials, and retain future revenues.
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