Rural Health Disparities: The Challenges and Potential Solutions Explained
Photo by Tomasz Filipek
For years we’ve heard about the health risks of smoking, obesity, and stress. But what if those factors were less important than our environment?
Research shows that where we live has a big impact on health outcomes. And unfortunately, people living in rural areas often have a lower life expectancy, higher risk of chronic disease, and a lower quality of life.
The issue of health equity in the United States and abroad is not new. But there are new solutions that could transform healthcare delivery in a positive way.
The guide below explores the biggest challenges leading to rural health disparities and suggests potential solutions to address them.
Rural Health Disparities
Before discussing solutions, let’s address two important questions. First, what are “health disparities”? Second, what are some challenges rural communities face that seem to be causing health disparities?
Having health disparities means that – due to preventable differences – one group of people has poorer health outcomes than another group. People living in rural areas are often some of the most socially disadvantaged populations, resulting in noticable health differences.
For example, rural areas have a higher rate of cancer than urban areas. Here are a few more statistics about health disparities in rural areas.
- Higher mortality rate from heart disease and stroke
- Higher infant mortality and lower quality prenatal care
- Higher rate of diabetes and diabetes complications
- Higher rate of drug overdose and opioid misuse
- Higher rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
As you can see, rural communities suffer from serious public health issues – and many of them can be prevented. Health disparities are caused by many factors. For example, low socioeconomic status and lack of affordable health insurance.
The problem of rural health disparities is complicated. But it can be explained by two major issues – accessibility and affordability.
Health problems are intensified by living in a rural area. Rural communities have fewer medical professionals and facilities, especially those providing unique specialties. This includes primary care doctors, medical specialists, and hospitals.
Not having enough primary care doctors is a problem because people in rural areas are not receiving preventive care. Preventive care includes cancer screening, nutrition counseling, immunizations, and blood pressure monitoring. Without preventive care, medical professionals cannot catch illnesses early and the community suffers.
Preventive care also provides access to important health information for individuals and families about healthy eating and exercise behaviors. Without that education, rural communities have higher rates of alcohol use, tobacco use, and obesity.
The simplest solution to the accessibility problem is to have more medical professionals and facilities in rural areas. To do this, it has to be more attractive for medical professionals to work there.
Offering a student loan forgiveness program to individuals working in rural communities is a great place to start. Also, there should be more healthcare education sites in rural areas. It will show students the unique health issues those populations have. It may also increase the interest for students to continue working with rural communities.
In some areas, increasing the number of healthcare sites and providers isn’t possible. And for those areas, telehealth and health education campaigns may be more beneficial.
Telehealth allows patients to visit with doctors and nurses over the phone or through video conferencing. The patient can ask questions and get medical advice without having to travel. And the provider can decide whether the patient needs an in-person follow-up visit.
Telehealth requires cellphone service and/or internet access which some rural and/or low-income communities do not have. But communities could also use local buildings or health centers as hubs for telehealth appointments.
Health Education Campaigns
When preventive care is not accessible, communities don’t receive proper health education. And without health education, the risk for diabetes, obesity, STIs, heart disease, and cancer may increase. Through local health education campaigns, volunteers and community health workers can help address these issues.
TV commercials, ads on the radio, or newspaper articles could be used to share important health information about healthy eating, exercise, and health screenings. Local health centers, libraries, or grocery stores could have pamphlets on important health topics and a list of resources.
Community health workers can use shared community spaces to host health fairs or mobile screening. Health education and preventive care need to be more convenient for rural populations.
If healthcare is not affordable, the population will not be as healthy. In rural areas, the average individual and household income are lower than in urban areas. Here, individuals and families may not be able to afford healthcare services.
There are also fewer employer-sponsored health insurance opportunities in rural areas. Without health insurance, regular medical appointments, tests, and visits with specialists cost a heavy price out of pocket. Medicaid supports people living in rural communities but it may not cover all medical expenses.
In some cases, an individual may have health insurance but the provider in their area doesn’t accept that insurance. This is an example where the issues of accessibility and affordability collide. If the convenient healthcare option isn’t affordable, the individual might put off the medical appointment or skip it.
When people can’t afford to see a doctor or a specialist, they won’t. And when they don’t get the care they need, their health condition often gets worse. Rural healthcare has to become more affordable if we want to help people in those communities live longer, healthier lives.
The Path to Healthy Rural Communities
Improving health care in rural areas starts by increasing accessibility and affordability. Promoting health education, preventive services, and healthy behaviors can help get rid of rural health disparities affecting the world today.
Local, state, and federal policies should reflect the unique needs of rural populations. And conversations about health equity need to continue so that rural populations get the resources and services they deserve.
If you’re interested in donating to rural communities that need your help, click here. Or visit our site to learn more about the important work Esperança International is doing!