Do people live longer when they have access to a primary care provider? A growing body of evidence suggests there is a link between access to primary care and a longer life. A case in point is a study recently published in JAMA Internal Medicine which found that mortality rates are lower in U.S. counties with more primary care providers. Each 10 additional primary care physicians per 100,000 people was linked to a 51.5 day increase in life expectancy, according to researchers.
Yet access to primary care providers continues to be a problem in the U.S., especially in rural areas. NACHC has noted in previous studies that more than 60 million people (including some who have insurance) do not have access to a primary care provider. Part of the problem is location – many dwell in places where there are sparse options for primary care. Nearly half of health centers (44 percent) are located in rural communities, where the nearest doctor or hospital can be as far as 50 miles or more away.
Dr. George Sigounas, Administrator of the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) recently underscored the critical need for primary care providers and threw the spotlight on the excessive death rates in rural areas, noting “there are 252 rural counties in the United States without any health care providers.” Sigounas also pointed to “a widening gap” of almost three years in life expectancy between urban and rural dwellers.
The question of mortality and access to care has been a topic for research before. It is also why Community Health Centers sprang into existence more than 50 years ago — because it was widely recognized that there were communities in America where no doctors were near and thus people languished without basic care. Even in their fledgling days, health centers made an impact in terms of reducing mortality rates. A study published about five years ago by the University of Michigan [see NACHC blog post] examined data from when health centers were first funded from 1965 to 1974. That study found that mortality rates dropped 7 to 13 percent among people aged 50 and older. The most significant reductions were to death linked to cardiovascular problems. The University of Michigan study was the first to focus on the long-term affect health centers have on mortality rates and to examine effects by age group, race and population density.