There are still plenty of places in the U.S. where it’s easier to purchase a round bale of hay than health care. Approximately 20 percent of the U.S. population—about 60 million people—live in rural areas, which make up 97 percent of the land area in the United States, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration. That’s why there are Community Health Centers in rural pockets of America where the nearest provider can be miles away in the next county. That doesn’t mean providers aren’t needed; indeed, people who live in rural areas are more likely than urban residents to die prematurely from all of the five leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, unintentional injury, chronic lower respiratory disease, and stroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rural dwellers are also more likely to be uninsured as well as have lower incomes generally.
The good news is that rural health centers are effectively reaching these populations. More than 600 health center organizations are operating nearly 4,500 sites in rural communities and serve 1 in 5 rural residents across the U.S. [see NACHC’s fact sheet, “Community Health Centers Meeting Rural Health Needs”]. One in eight rural health center patients are age 65 or older and part of a growing trend of older, chronically ill patients in health center waiting rooms.
There is growing demand for care in rural areas and a persistent problem in recruiting and retaining the health care workforce. Too few primary care providers choose to practice in rural areas, a trend that will likely worsen in the coming years. Sustained funding for workforce building programs, such as Teaching Health Centers and the National Health Service Corps, are critical.
Technology is also helping build access to care. Telehealth, for instance, is one way patients can see a doctor when there is a long distance to travel and at the same time mitigates provider shortages. Nearly half (48 percent) of rural health centers offer services through telehealth, which goes to show you how technology and innovation can happen in the unlikeliest of places.