Healthcare Access in Rural Communities
Access to healthcare services is critical to good health, yet rural residents face a variety of access barriers.
A 1993 National Academies report, Access to Healthcare in America, defined access as
the timely use of
personal health services to achieve the best possible health outcomes. A 2014 RUPRI Health
Panel report on rural healthcare access summarizes additional definitions of
access with examples of measures that can be used to determine access.
Ideally, residents should be able to conveniently and confidently access services such as primary care, dental care, behavioral health, emergency care, and public health services. According to Healthy People 2020, access to healthcare is important for:
- Overall physical, social, and mental health status
- Disease prevention
- Detection, diagnosis, and treatment of illness
- Quality of life
- Preventable death
- Life expectancy
Rural residents often encounter barriers to healthcare that limit their ability to obtain the care they need. In order for rural residents to have sufficient access, necessary and appropriate healthcare services must be available and obtainable in a timely manner. Even when an adequate supply of healthcare services exists in the community, there are other factors to consider in terms of healthcare access. For instance, to have good healthcare access, a rural resident must also have:
- Financial means to pay for services, such as health or dental insurance that is accepted by the provider
- Means to reach and use services, such as transportation to services that may be located at a distance, and the ability to take paid time off of work to use such services
- Confidence in their ability to communicate with healthcare providers, particularly if the patient is not fluent in English or has poor health literacy
- Trust that they can use services without compromising privacy
- Belief that they will receive quality care
This guide provides an overview of healthcare access in rural America including discussion on the importance and benefits of healthcare access and the barriers that rural residents experience. The guide includes information on:
- Barriers to care, including workforce shortages and health insurance status
- Health literacy
- Stigma associated with conditions in rural communities, such as mental health or substance abuse
Frequently Asked Questions
- How does the lack of healthcare access affect population health and patient well-being in a community?
- What are barriers to healthcare access in rural areas?
- Why is primary care access important for rural residents?
- What types of healthcare services are frequently difficult to access in rural areas?
- How do rural healthcare facility and service closures impact access to care?
- What are some strategies to improve access to care in rural communities?
- What can be done to help rural veterans access healthcare?
- What is different about healthcare access for American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians?
- What organizations work to improve rural healthcare access?
- How are private foundations working to improve healthcare access and the related reimbursement issues?
How does the lack of healthcare access affect population health and patient well-being in a community?
Health Status and Health Care Access of Farm and Rural Populations states that both farm and rural populations experience lower access to healthcare along the dimensions of affordability, proximity, and quality, compared with their nonfarm and urban counterparts. Nonmetropolitan households are more likely to report the cost of healthcare limits their ability to receive care. Travel to reach a primary care provider may be costly and burdensome for patients living in remote rural areas, with subspecialty care often being even farther away. These patients may substitute local primary care providers for subspecialists or they may decide to postpone or forego care.
According to the 2014 RUPRI Health Panel report, Access to Rural Health Care - A Literature Review and New Synthesis, barriers to healthcare result in unmet healthcare needs, including a lack of preventive and screening services and treatment of illnesses. A vital rural community is dependent on the health of its population. While access to medical care does not guarantee good health, access to healthcare is critical for a population's well-being and optimal health.
The challenges that rural residents face in accessing healthcare services contribute to health disparities. To learn more about disparities in health outcomes, see RHIhub's Rural Health Disparities topic guide.
What are barriers to healthcare access in rural areas?
Distance and Transportation
Rural populations are more likely to have to travel long distances to access healthcare services, particularly subspecialist services. This can be a significant burden in terms of travel time, cost, and time away from the workplace. In addition, the lack of reliable transportation is a barrier to care. In urban areas, public transit is generally an option for patients to get to medical appointments; however, these transportation services are often lacking in rural areas. Rural communities often have more elderly residents who have chronic conditions requiring multiple visits to outpatient healthcare facilities. This becomes challenging without available public or private transportation. RHIhub's Transportation to Support Rural Healthcare topic guide provides resources and information about transportation and related issues for rural communities.
Health Insurance Coverage
Individuals without health insurance have less access to healthcare services. A U.S. Census Bureau report, Health Insurance Coverage in the United States, 2018, found that the population living outside metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) without any type of health insurance was 9.1% in 2018, compared to 8.4% of the population within MSAs.
The June 2016 issue brief from the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, Impact of the Affordable Care Act Coverage Expansion on Rural and Urban Populations, found that 43.4% of uninsured rural residents reported not having a usual source of care, which was less than the 52.6% of uninsured urban residents reporting not having a usual source of care. The brief reports that 26.5% of uninsured, rural residents delayed receiving healthcare in the past year due to cost. The Affordable Care Act and Insurance Coverage in Rural Areas, a 2014 Kaiser Family Foundation issue brief, points out that uninsured rural residents face greater difficulty accessing care due to the limited supply of rural healthcare providers who offer low-cost or charity healthcare, when compared to their urban counterparts.
Health insurance affordability is a concern for rural areas. A RUPRI Center for Rural Health Policy Analysis policy brief, Health Insurance Marketplaces: Issuer Participation and Premium Trends in Rural Places, 2018, evaluated changes in average health insurance marketplace (HIM) plan premiums from 2014 to 2018. Average premiums were higher in rural counties than in urban counties. In addition, rural counties were more likely to have only one insurance issuer participating in the HIM.
Poor Health Literacy
Health literacy can also be a barrier to accessing healthcare. Health literacy impacts a patient's ability to understand health information and instructions from their healthcare providers. This can be especially concerning in rural communities, where lower educational levels and higher incidence of poverty often impact residents. Low health literacy can make residents reluctant to seek healthcare due to fear of or frustration related to communicating with a healthcare professional. Additionally, navigating the healthcare systems can be difficult without health literacy skills. To learn more about low health literacy in rural America, see What are the roles of literacy, health literacy, and educational attainment in the health of rural residents? on RHIhub's Social Determinants of Health for Rural People topic guide. The Rural Monitor's two-part series on rural health literacy, Understanding Skills and Demands is Key to Improvement and Who's Delivering Health Information?, provides insights, connections between health and health literacy, and discusses how health information is being delivered to rural populations.
Social Stigma and Privacy Issues
In rural areas, there is little anonymity; social stigma and privacy concerns are more likely to act as barriers to healthcare access. Rural residents can have concerns about seeking care for mental health, substance abuse, sexual health, pregnancy, or even common chronic illnesses due to unease or privacy concerns. Patients' feelings may be caused by personal relationships with their healthcare provider or others working in the healthcare facility. Additionally, patients can feel fear or concerns about other residents, who are often friends, family members, or co-workers, who may notice them utilizing services for health conditions that are typically not openly discussed, such as counseling or HIV testing services. Co-location or the integration of behavioral health services with primary care healthcare services in the same building can help ease patient concerns. Understanding Rural Communities, a 2018 podcast from the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, features an interview with Dennis Mohatt, the Vice President for Behavioral Health at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), discussing rural health and the stigma surrounding mental healthcare in rural communities.
Healthcare workforce shortages impact healthcare access in rural communities. One measure of healthcare access is having a regular source of care, which is dependent on having an adequate healthcare workforce. Some health services researchers argue that determining healthcare access by simply measuring provider availability is not an adequate measure to fully understand healthcare access. Measures of nonuse, such as counting rural residents who could not find an appropriate care provider, can help provide a fuller picture of whether a sufficient healthcare workforce is available to rural residents.
A shortage of healthcare professionals in rural areas of the U.S. can limit access to healthcare by limiting the supply of available services. As of December 2019, 62.93% of Primary Care Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSAs) were located in rural areas, according to a HRSA Data Warehouse preformatted report, Designated Health Professional Shortage Areas Statistics.
Primary Care HPSAs are scored 0-25, with higher scores indicating a greater need for primary care providers. This January 2020 map highlights nonmetropolitan areas with primary care workforce shortages, with areas in darker green indicating higher nonmetro HPSA scores:
For more information on healthcare workforce challenges in rural areas, resources, and strategies used to address rural healthcare workforce shortages, see RHIhub's Rural Healthcare Workforce topic guide.
Why is primary care access important for rural residents?
Primary care is the most basic and, along with emergency and public health services, the most vital service needed in rural communities. Primary care providers offer a broad range of services and treat a wide spectrum of medical issues. The American Academy of Family Physicians characterizes primary care as follows:
“A primary care practice serves as the patient's first point of entry into the health care system and as the continuing focal point for all needed health care services…Primary care practices provide health promotion, disease prevention, health maintenance, counseling, patient education, diagnosis and treatment of acute and chronic illnesses in a variety of health care settings.”
A 2005 Milbank Quarterly article, Contribution of Primary Care to Health Systems and Health, identifies the key roles primary care access plays in preventing disease and improving health. Primary care serves as a first entry point into the health system, which can be particularly important for groups, such as rural residents and racial/ethnic minorities, who might otherwise face barriers to accessing healthcare. Some benefits of primary care access are:
- Preventive services, including early disease detection
- Care coordination
- Lower all-cause, cancer, and heart disease mortality rates
- Reduction in low birth weight
- Improved health behaviors
Access to Quality Health Services in Rural Areas – Primary Care: A Literature Review, a section of the 2015 report Rural Healthy People 2020: A Companion Document to Healthy People 2020, Volume 1, provides an overview of the impact primary care access has on rural health. Rural residents with limited primary care access may not receive preventive screenings that can lead to early detection and treatment of disease. A North Carolina Rural Health Research Program 2018 findings brief, Access to Care: Populations in Counties with No FQHC, RHC, or Acute Care Hospital, describes the scope of limited primary care access in rural areas in the U.S. and covers three facility types that provide primary care services to rural communities, including Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs), Rural Health Clinics (RHCs), and Acute Care Hospital Outpatient Departments. The findings brief found that there are 660,893 U.S. residents who live in rural counties without a FQHC, RHC, or acute care hospital living predominantly in the South Atlantic (34%), East North Central (21%), and West North Central (20%) census divisions.
To learn more about FQHCs, see RHIhub's Federal Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) topic guide. Additionally, RHIhub's Rural Health Clinics (RHCs) topic guide provides information and resources and answers frequently asked questions on these types of facilities.
What types of healthcare services are frequently difficult to access in rural areas?
Home health services in rural America are a growing need. Home is Where the Heart Is: Insights on the Coordination and Delivery of Home Health Services in Rural America, an August 2017 Rural Health Reform Policy Research Center policy brief, covers many barriers and challenges facing rural home health agencies that affect their ability to provide access in rural areas, including:
- Reimbursement and insurance coverage
- Face-to-face requirement
- Homebound status requirement
- Changing policies
- Service areas
- Discharge and referral process
See To what extent are home health services available in rural communities? on the Rural Home Health Services topic guide for more information.
Hospice and Palliative Care
Hospice and palliative care agencies often face barriers and challenges similar to other healthcare services in rural areas. These challenges can include workforce shortages; recruitment and retention programs; reimbursement issues; limited access to broadband; and others. A 2013 National Advisory Committee on Rural Health and Human Services' policy brief, Rural Implications of Changes to the Medicare Hospice Benefit, states that rural Medicare beneficiaries can have limited access to hospice care.
RHIhub's Rural Hospice and Palliative Care topic guide answers frequently asked questions and provides resources on hospice and palliative care in rural areas. Community-based Palliative Care: Scaling Access for Rural Populations, an October 2018 Rural Monitor article, describes the role palliative care plays in meeting the needs of patients who are chronically and seriously ill and covers challenges to accessing palliative care in rural areas.
Mental Health Services
Access to mental health providers and services is a challenge in rural areas. As a result, primary care physicians often fill the gap and provide mental health services while facing their own barriers, such as lack of time with patients or adequate financial reimbursement. As of December 2019, 60.98% of Mental Health Professional Shortage Areas were located in rural areas, according to a HRSA Data Warehouse preformatted report, Designated Health Professional Shortage Areas Statistics.
Mental Health HPSAs are scored 0-25, with higher scores indicating a greater need for mental health providers. The January 2020 map below highlights mental health HPSAs for both metro areas, in multiple shades of purple, and nonmetro areas, in various shades of green.
Due to the lack of mental health providers in rural communities, the use of telehealth to deliver mental health services is on the rise. The June 2016 Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality technical brief, Telehealth: Mapping the Evidence for Patient Outcomes from Systematic Reviews, found that mental health services delivered via telehealth have been shown to be effective. By using telehealth delivery systems, mental health services can be provided in a variety of rural settings including rural clinics, schools, residential programs, and long term care facilities. RHIhub's Telehealth Use in Rural Healthcare topic guide has many more resources on how telehealth can improve access to care. For additional resources on access to mental health services in rural areas, see RHIhub's Rural Mental Health topic guide.
A shortage of mental health and substance abuse clinicians in rural communities led to the development of new models to bridge the gap and provide needed mental health and substance abuse services using allied behavioral health workers, such as:
- Nurse Navigator and Recovery Specialist Outreach Program
- ASPIN Network's Community Health Worker Program
For more information, see the 2016 WWAMI Rural Health Research Center data brief, Supply and Distribution of the Behavioral Health Workforce in Rural America. The brief discusses and compares the provider to population ratios of the behavioral health workforce in metropolitan and nonmetropolitan U.S. counties, including micropolitan and noncore areas. A state-level analysis of the study is also available with information for all states.
Substance Abuse Services
Despite a growing need, there is a definite lack of substance abuse services offered in many rural communities across America.
A 2015 American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse article, Rural Substance Use Treatment Centers in the United States: An Assessment of Treatment Quality by Location, reports that rural substance abuse treatment centers had a lower proportion of highly educated counselors, compared to urban centers. Rural treatment centers were found to offer fewer wraparound services and specialized treatment tracks.
Detoxification is an initial step of substance abuse treatment that involves managing acute intoxication, withdrawal, and minimizing medical complications. A 2009 Maine Rural Health Research Center research and policy brief, Few and Far Away: Detoxification Services in Rural Areas, found that 82% of rural residents live in a county without a detox provider. The lack of detox providers in rural areas creates a barrier to care that could result in patients forgoing or delaying needed treatment. In lieu of a detox provider in a rural community, the local emergency room or county jail, although not the most appropriate location for detoxification services, must often serve as a substitute.
Access to medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is also limited in rural communities. What's MAT Got to Do with It? Medication-Assisted Treatment for Opioid Use Disorder in Rural America provides an overview of MAT, an evidence-based treatment for opioid use disorder, with information on the science behind the disorder and how three MAT medications work.
RHIhub's Substance Abuse in Rural Areas topic guide provides information and resources; answers frequently asked questions; and lists model programs to address substance abuse treatment in rural areas.
Closure of Hospital Obstetric Services Disproportionately Affects Less-Populated Rural Counties, an April 2017 policy brief from the University of Minnesota Rural Health Research Center, highlights the growing challenges women in rural areas face in accessing obstetric (OB) services. From 2004 to 2014, 179 rural counties lost hospital-based OB services, either to a hospital or OB unit closure. This results in only 45.7% of all rural counties having hospital based OB services. Of the 179 rural counties losing OB services during that ten-year timeframe, 150 were noncore counties, leaving just 30.2% of these counties with OB services.
A 2014 committee opinion from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), Health
Disparities in Rural Women, reports that
prenatal care initiation in the first trimester was
lower for mothers in more rural areas compared with suburban areas. Access to labor and delivery,
prenatal, and related services is also a concern of ACOG, reporting that
less than one half
of rural women live within a 30-minute drive to the nearest hospital offering perinatal services.
Obstetric Services and Quality among Critical Access, Rural, and Urban Hospitals in Nine States, a 2013 policy brief from the University of Minnesota Rural Health Research Center, reports the results of a study assessing the quality of childbirth-related care in different hospital settings. The study concluded that Critical Access Hospitals (CAHs) performed favorably on obstetric care quality measures when compared to urban hospitals, with some variation across the nine states.
The 2019 National Rural Health Association (NRHA) policy brief, Access to Rural Maternity Care, provides an overview of the decline in access to maternity care in rural areas and factors contributing to the decline in access. The brief offers policy considerations to support maternity care services and address barriers to access in the rural U.S., such as increasing research funding, rural OB practice challenges, workforce issues, and quality of OB care.
Oral Health Services
Oral health affects physical and emotional health, and has many other influences over our lives that affect health and wellbeing, such as obtaining employment. Despite the importance of oral health, access to oral health services is either very limited or difficult to access in many rural and remote communities.
Traditionally, medical or health insurance plans have not covered oral health services. A separate oral health or dental insurance plan is needed to cover oral health services and procedures. A 2011 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report, Advancing Oral Health in America, states that fewer rural residents have dental insurance compared to urban residents.
Another factor limiting access to dental services is the lack of dental health professionals in rural and underserved areas. A June 2015 WWAMI Rural Health Research Center report, Dentist Supply, Dental Care Utilization, and Oral Health Among Rural and Urban U.S. Residents, found that rural adults used dental services less and had more permanent tooth loss compared to urban adults, which could be related to the scarcity of dentists in rural areas. The per capita supply of generalist dentists per 100,000 population, based on 2008 data, was 30.1 for metropolitan areas, compared to 21.9 per 100,000 for nonmetro areas.
A May 2018 NRHA policy brief, Improving Rural Oral Healthcare Access, offers recommendations to address dental workforce shortages and to ultimately improve access to oral health services including:
- Providing rural training tracks during dental education
- Admitting dental students from rural areas who would be more likely to practice in a rural community
- Providing dental students opportunities to obtain a broad range of dental skills which will be needed in a rural practice
- Helping rural communities recruit and retain oral health providers through local community development programs
How do rural healthcare facility and service closures impact access to care?
The closure of rural healthcare facilities or the discontinuation of services can have a negative impact on the access to healthcare in a rural community.
Local rural healthcare systems are fragile; when one facility closes or a provider leaves, it can impact care and access across the community. For example, if a surgeon leaves, C-section access declines and obstetric care is jeopardized. If a hospital closes, it may be harder to recruit physicians.
There are multiple factors that can affect the severity and impact of a hospital or healthcare facility closure, including:
- Distance to the next closest provider
- Availability of alternative services
- Transportation services
- Community members' socioeconomic and health status
Traveling to receive healthcare services places the burden on patients. For individuals with low incomes, no paid time off of their jobs, physical limitations, acute conditions, or no personal transportation, these burdens can significantly affect their ability to access healthcare services.
Rural hospital closures, particularly CAHs, frequently make the news with articles discussing the negative effects in particular for rural communities, such as:
- In the Tennessee Delta, a Poor Community Loses Its Hospital — and Sense of Security
- Here's a Map of Where Rural Hospital Closures are Happening in the U.S.
- Consequences ‘Deadly,' As More TN Hospitals Close
- A Rural Kansas Hospital Owned by a Kansas City-Based Company Closes Abruptly
A significant concern for rural communities losing their hospital is the loss of emergency services. In emergency situations, any delay in care can have serious adverse consequences on patient outcomes.
An 2015 findings brief from the North Carolina Rural Health Research Program, A Comparison of Closed Rural Hospitals and Perceived Impact, identifies the following potential impacts on healthcare access due to hospital closure:
- Unstable health services, particularly diagnostic and lab tests, obstetrics, rehabilitation, and emergency medical care
- Rising EMS costs
- Residents not receiving needed care or services due to lack of transportation
- Greater impact on access for the elderly, racial/ethnic minorities, the poor, and people with disabilities
The North Carolina Rural Health Research Program maintains a rural hospital closure tracking map. Rural health experts believe rural hospital closures are likely to continue because many rural hospitals have minimal operating margins with little room for financial loss.
A 2016 Medicare Payment Advisory Commission presentation, Improving Efficiency and Preserving Access to Emergency Care in Rural Areas, describes policies and strategies to ensure access to emergency department services in rural areas. The presentation provides discussion on alternative healthcare delivery models. See What alternative hospital models have been proposed to serve rural communities? on RHIhub's Rural Hospitals topic guide to learn about innovative hospital models to ensure access to healthcare services for rural residents.
Maintaining pharmacy services in rural towns can also be a challenge, particularly when the only pharmacist in town nears retirement. When a community's only pharmacy closes, it creates a void and residents must adapt to find new ways to meet their medication needs. According to Causes and Consequences of Rural Pharmacy Closures: A Multi-Case Study:
Rural residents rely on local pharmacies to provide pharmacy and clinical care management and coordination. The absence of a pharmacy may be disproportionately felt by the rural elderly, who often have a greater need for access to medications and medication management services.
A 2015 rural policy brief from RUPRI Center for Rural Health Policy Analysis, Characteristics of Rural Communities with a Sole, Independently Owned Pharmacy, analyzed data to describe characteristics of vulnerable rural communities served by a sole, independently owned rural pharmacy. Average characteristics of communities include:
- 19% of the population was aged 65 and older
- Unemployment at 8%
- Uninsured rates were 15%
- 28% had incomes below 150% of the federal poverty level
For more information on rural pharmacy access or challenges rural pharmacies face, see RHIhub's Rural Pharmacy and Prescription Drugs topic guide.
What are some strategies to improve access to care in rural communities?
There are multiple strategies being used to improve access to healthcare in rural areas. Examples include:
Freestanding Emergency Departments (FSEDs) are defined by the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) as a “facility that is structurally separate and distinct from a hospital and provides emergency care.” ACEP provides FSED operational and staffing recommendations. A November 2016 Rural Monitor article, Freestanding Emergency Departments: An Alternative Model for Rural Communities, further defines a FSED and describes the two types, while discussing the financial sustainability of the model.
Community Paramedicine is a model of care where paramedics and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) operate in expanded roles to assist with healthcare services for those in need without duplicating available services existing within the community. RHIhub's Community Paramedicine topic guide describes how this model of care can benefit rural communities and cover steps to starting a rural community paramedicine program.
Frontier Community Health Integration Program (FCHIP) is exploring the development of and testing new models to improve access to quality healthcare services in frontier areas.
The Community Health Worker (CHW) model facilitates healthcare access by using CHWs as a liaison between healthcare providers and rural residents to help make sure their healthcare needs are met. RHIhub's Community Health Workers in Rural Settings topic guide offers information and resources on CHWs and covers CHW education, training, and certification.
Team-based care models, such as Patient-Centered Medical Homes (PCMHs), can also extend access to primary care services in rural communities. A variety of rural medical home and care coordination programs are highlighted in RHIhub's Rural Health Models and Innovations section.
After Hospital Closure: Pursuing High Performance Rural Health Systems without Inpatient Care, a June 2017 RUPRI Health Panel report, discusses case studies from three rural communities that transitioned to new models of care. The report also describes a range of different delivery options for communities that lack hospital inpatient care.
Affiliation with Larger Systems or Networks
Local rural healthcare facilities may choose to join healthcare networks or affiliate themselves with larger healthcare systems as a strategic move to maintain or improve healthcare access in their communities. These affiliations or joining of healthcare networks may improve the financial viability of the rural facility; provide additional resources and infrastructure for the facility; and allow the rural healthcare facility to offer new or expanded healthcare services they could not otherwise provide. However, the benefits of an affiliation with a larger healthcare network may come at the expense of local control.
A 2018 RUPRI Center for Rural Health Policy Analysis policy brief, Trends in Hospital System Affiliation, 2007-2016, notes that rural hospitals do follow the general trend and show an increase in hospital system affiliation. The brief found nonmetropolitan CAHs had the lowest rate increase in hospital system affiliation. The 2018 RUPRI Center for Rural Health Policy Analysis report, The Rural Hospital and Health System Affiliation Landscape – A Brief Review, discusses the various types of hospital affiliations that rural hospitals might consider and factors that might affect which option rural hospitals choose, such as maintaining local decision-making authority and meeting the demands of the hospital system affiliation. The report covers some benefits hospital system affiliation can afford a rural hospital, including access to:
- Staff recruitment and retention
- Group purchasing
- Increased access to healthcare and operational services
Efforts to Improve the Workforce
An adequate workforce is necessary to maintaining access to healthcare in a community. In order to increase access to healthcare, rural communities should be using their healthcare professionals in the most efficient and strategic ways. This might include allowing each professional to work at the top of their license, using new types of providers, working in interprofessional teams, and creative scheduling to offer clinic time outside of regular work hours.
RHIhub's Rural Healthcare Workforce topic guide discusses how rural areas can address workforce shortages, such as partnering with other healthcare facilities; increasing pay for staff; adding flexibility and incentives to improve recruitment and retention of healthcare providers; and using telehealth services. The guide also discusses state and federal policies and programs to improve the supply of rural health professionals, such as loan repayment programs and visa waivers.
Telehealth continues to be seen as a key solution to help address rural healthcare access issues. Through telehealth, rural patients can see specialists in a timely manner while staying in the comfort of their home or local facility. Local healthcare providers can also benefit from subspecialists' expertise provided via telehealth. RHIhub's Telehealth Use in Rural Healthcare topic guide provides a broad overview of how telehealth is being used in rural communities to improve healthcare access. The guide covers specific programs currently in use in rural areas, as well as providing resources and a listing of funding and opportunities that can be used to support telehealth solutions.
What can be done to help rural veterans access healthcare?
One of the primary barriers rural veterans face when accessing healthcare services is the significant travel distance to the nearest Veterans Affairs (VA) healthcare facility. To address access issues for rural veterans, the VA has created community-based outpatient clinics in many rural areas, as well as using mobile clinics and telehealth services. The Veteran's Choice Program (VCP) has allowed some rural veterans to see local providers for care they would typically receive through the VA. To learn more about VA services for rural veterans or the VA's efforts to address veterans' healthcare access, see RHIhub's Rural Veterans and Access to Healthcare topic guide.
What is different about healthcare access for American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians?
Health and Health Care for American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/ANs), a 2018 publication from the Kaiser Family Foundation, reports that nonelderly AI/AN adults are more likely to be uninsured compared to nonelderly whites, 25% and 8% respectively, and that there are higher uninsured rates of AI/AN children (14%) compared to white children (4%). Health and Health Care for Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders (NHOPIs) in the United States, another 2018 publication from the Kaiser Family Foundation, found that 11% of nonelderly Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islander adults were uninsured in 2016 compared to 7% of nonelderly white adults.
Indian Health Service (IHS) provides healthcare and prevention services to AI/ANs. Broken Promises: Continuing Federal Funding Shortfall for Native Americans, a 2018 report, reports that federal funding for Native American programs in the past 15 years has been severely inadequate and doesn't meet the basic needs and services of the federal government's obligations to the populations they serve, which in itself is a barrier to accessing healthcare for AI/ANs. IHS provides direct healthcare services at an IHS facility or Purchase/Referred Care (PRC) provided by a non-IHS facility or provider through a contractual agreement, and is not healthcare insurance coverage. This is explained further in RHIhub's Rural Tribal Health topic guide question Is access to Indian Health Service (IHS) resources considered health insurance?
RHIhub's Rural Tribal Health topic guide answers frequently asked questions on tribal health and provides resources on rural AI/ANs populations.
What organizations work to improve rural healthcare access?
Many organizations work to meet the needs of rural communities and help ensure the availability of essential healthcare services.
- The Federal Office of Rural Health Policy (FORHP) focuses on rural healthcare issues and is part of HRSA.
- Rural Health Research Centers are funded by the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy to produce policy-relevant research and analysis on healthcare and issues impacting healthcare in rural areas.
- The National Rural Health Association (NRHA) provides leadership and resources on rural health issues for healthcare providers and organizations working to improve the health of rural communities.
- The National Association of Rural Health Clinics (NARHC) works to improve the delivery of quality, cost-effective healthcare in rural underserved areas through the RHC Program.
- The American Hospital Association (AHA) Section for Small or Rural Hospitals represents the interests of small and rural hospitals and works to ensure that the unique needs of this segment of AHA's membership are a national priority.
- State Offices of Rural Health (SORHs) and State Rural Health Associations help rural communities build healthcare delivery systems by coordinating rural healthcare activities in the state, collecting and disseminating information, and providing technical assistance to public and non-profit entities.
- The National Organization of State Offices of Rural Health (NOSORH) works to foster and promote legislation, resources, and education with the SORHs, the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy, NRHA, and other organizations promoting and supporting rural healthcare access.
- The National Rural Recruitment and Retention Network (3RNet) is a national recruitment organization for healthcare professional jobs in rural and underserved communities.
How are private foundations working to improve healthcare access and the related reimbursement issues?
Many private foundations work to improve healthcare access by funding transportation services, improving workforce, and addressing other factors that affect rural healthcare access. Investing in existing safety net providers and programs, offering grants to develop and implement innovative healthcare delivery models, and funding research to study policy implications as they relate to rural healthcare access are all examples of actions foundations can take to support rural healthcare access.
A November 2017 article published in Health Affairs, Foundations' Efforts to Improve Rural Health Care, covers private foundation projects focused on improving access to rural healthcare.
Grantmakers in Health offers multiple resources that provide education and guidance to foundations interested in improving rural healthcare access, such as Improving Health Care Access: Grantmakers Share Their Experiences or Improving Health Access in Communities, Lessons for Effective Grantmaking.
Last Reviewed: 1/18/2019