Social Determinants of Health for Rural People

Social determinants of health are, according to the World Health Organization,

“the circumstances in which people are born, grow up, live, work and age, and the systems put in place to deal with illness. These circumstances are in turn shaped by a wider set of forces: economics, social policies, and politics.”

Income-level, educational attainment, race/ethnicity, and health literacy all impact the ability of people to access health services and to meet their basic needs, such as clean water and safe housing, which are essential to staying healthy. Rural residents are more likely to experience some of the contributing social factors that impact health, such as poverty. The impact of these challenges can be compounded by the barriers already present in rural areas, such as limited public transportation options and fewer choices to acquire healthy food.

This guide focuses on the health inequities that rural residents experience, discussing the impact of and documenting rural differences related to:

  • Income, employment, and poverty
  • Educational attainment and literacy
  • Race/ethnicity
  • Sexual orientation/gender identity
  • Health literacy
  • Adequate community infrastructure, which can ensure public safety, allow access to media, and promote wellness
  • Environmental health, including water quality, air quality, and pollution
  • Access to safe and healthy homes, including issues related to energy costs and weatherization needs, lead-based paint, and other safety issues
  • Access to safe and affordable transportation, which can impact both job access and healthcare access. Unsafe transportation, such as vehicles in poor condition, may increase risk of injury.
  • Access to healthy and affordable food
  • Access to healthcare services

Two related guides are available to learn about the impacts of health inequities (see Rural Health Disparities) and ways to address these inequities to improve health (see Human Services to Support Rural Healthcare).

Frequently Asked Questions


How does Rural America differ from the nation as a whole, regarding the social determinants of health?

Rural America experiences many inequities compared to the nation as a whole. Often rural residents have fewer individual resources and, on average, are poorer and less educated. This Economic Research Service chart shows the ongoing gap between metropolitan and non-metro poverty rates:

Poverty Rates by Residence

Source: Poverty Overview, USDA Economic Research Service

Additionally, many rural residents face barriers related to access to housing, transportation, and foods that are safe, healthy, and affordable. These barriers can impact all residents, though they are particularly problematic for those already struggling financially.

Rural communities also face many environmental challenges. Hazardous materials often end up in remote areas where the land is cheap and fewer people overall are put at risk. Rural industries like mining and farming bring with them their own dangers and environmental impacts.

The Geography of Need: Identifying Human Service Needs in Rural America, a 2011 publication from the Rural Policy Research Institute (RUPRI), identified 8 demographic and 4 economic characteristics that are indicators that a community has high human service needs. Demographic indicators included minority population, population 65 and older, Veterans, adults without a high school diploma, and other factors. Economic indicators included poverty, households without vehicles, households receiving SNAP (food stamp) benefits, and income received from government transfer programs. Based on this set of 12 indicators, only 9% of metropolitan counties had three or more risk factors, while among non-metropolitan counties, 17.3% of micropolitan and 31.2% of non-core (rural) counties had three or more risk factors.

A 2014 article in the Annals of Internal Medicine, Neighborhood Socioeconomic Disadvantage and 30-Day Rehospitalization, examined rehospitalizations based on patients' place of residence. The study used the Area Deprivation Index (ADI), a set of measures of socioeconomic deprivation such as poverty level, educational attainment, and household information, to compare neighborhoods. Patients in the study who lived in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods were at higher risk for rehospitalization, and nearly one third of rural patients lived in such locations. One contributing factor related to rural readmissions that was not covered in this study is the lack of home health and other supportive services for discharged patients.


What is being done to address the social determinants of health for rural residents?

An ever-increasing number of federal agencies, foundations, and health-related organizations are taking an interest in the social determinants of health in general, and many are looking specifically at rural areas.

Just a few of these undertakings include:


How do poverty and unemployment impact health in rural communities?

Poverty is an ongoing problem for many rural areas. The 2014 RUPRI publication Persistent Poverty Dynamics: Understanding Poverty Trends Over 50 Years reports on counties with poverty rates above 20% over the past 50 years. Sixty-four percent of non-core counties are persistent poverty counties, compared to 22% of micropolitan and 14% of metropolitan counties.

Rural areas have higher poverty rates, particularly among children and the elderly:

Poverty Rates for Children and Elderly

Source: Geographic Comparison Tables 1701, 1702, & 1703, 2011-2015 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates

Average income is lower in rural areas. The rural per capita income in 2014 was $45,482, compared to $53,657 for the nation as a whole, as reported in the U.S. Census Bureau's Income and Poverty in the United States: 2014.

A May 2016 report from the USDA Economic Research Service, Understanding the Rise in Rural Child Poverty, 2003-14, identifies factors related to the ongoing crisis of rising child poverty, including the impact of income inequality, as documented in this chart:

Changes in Average Real Family Income Explain Little of the Rise in Child Poverty Between 2003 and 2014

Among the impacts of poverty on health is the barrier it creates in paying for healthcare services and meeting basic living needs, such as food and shelter, that are necessary to be healthy. Poverty also exerts an influence over health in the stress it causes. A 2012 Psychological Science article, Poverty and Health: The Mediating Role of Perceived Discrimination, reports on a longitudinal study of rural adolescents. The study looked at a range of health measures that can have long-term health consequences, such as blood pressure, cortisol levels, and body mass index. For study participants, poverty was associated with greater perceived discrimination, which in turn was associated with worse health measures.

The availability of good jobs - jobs that pay a living wage, offer adequate hours, and include benefits such as health insurance coverage and paid sick leave – can also impact rural residents' ability to stay healthy.

The 2013 Carsey Institute report Middle-Skill Jobs Remain More Common Among Rural Workers describes the continued rural reliance on mid-level jobs that require on-the-job training or apprenticeship. Urban areas tend to have a similar number of low-skill jobs as rural areas, but more high-skill jobs that come with bigger paychecks and benefits. In addition, workers with a college degree may find they earn less than their counterparts who work in urban areas, though those with less education may fare better in rural areas:

Annual Median Earnings, Age 25 and Older, by Education Level

  Rural Nation as a Whole
All education levels $34,043 $36,231
Less than high school graduate 21,614 20,361
High school graduate 29,585 28,043
Some college or associate's degree 33,438 33,820
Bachelor's degree 46,701 50,595
Graduate or professional degree 59,865 66,857

Source: Table B20004, 2011-2015 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates

A 2011 brief, also from the Carsey Institute, Rural Workers Have Less Access to Paid Sick Days, reports that 44% of rural workers lack access to paid sick leave, compared to 34% for suburban workers, and 38% for central city workers. Rural workers also fare worse in terms of paid leave to care for sick children.


How does early childhood development act as a social determinant? What resources are available to address this?

Early childhood development programs have the potential to impact health at a young age and set children on a path to growing up to be healthy adults, whatever background and resources their families have. According to a 2005 report, International Perspectives on Early Child Development, prepared for the World Health Organization's Commission on the Social Determinants of Health,

"…compared with many of the social determinants of health that are deeply embedded in economic processes, we know that most of the social determinants of ECD [early childhood development] are relatively easily modifiable."

Some of the early childhood factors identified in the WHO report that impact health include:

  • Prenatal and perinatal care, to help promote good birth outcomes and decrease infant mortality
  • Adequate nutritious food, for both mother and child
  • Parental well-being, including the impact of parental stress or depression
  • Opportunities for children to develop language, cognitive, social, and emotional skills

How do rural areas fare on these key factors?

  • Health Disparities in Rural Women, from the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists Committee on Health Care for Underserved Women, reports on decreasing access to obstetric services in rural areas. More than half of rural women live more than 30 minutes from a hospital offering delivery and nursery services. Rural women also tend to begin prenatal care later than suburban women.
  • The 2014 Update of the Rural-Urban Chartbook reports that infant mortality varies by region. In the South and the West, infant mortality was highest for rural areas, compared to more urban areas.
  • According to the Economic Research Service report Household Food Security in the United States in 2015, 20.5% of rural households with children are food insecure - lacking access to sufficient food - compared to 16.6% of all households with children.
  • The National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies, in its 2010 publication Child Care in Rural Areas: Top Challenges (no longer available online), points out that high quality childcare is harder to find in rural areas. Rural preschool children spend more time per week in childcare than non-rural children, most often in informal, home-based settings. Some of the issues that hamper childcare quality in rural areas include the financial burden for providers, childcare workers' education level, and lack of professional development opportunities.
  • Rural Head Start programs also have difficulty maintaining an adequately trained workforce of early childhood educators, according to a 2012 National Advisory Committee on Rural Health and Human Services policy brief, Challenges to Head Start and Early Childhood Development Programs in Rural Communities. They also face challenges providing the transportation necessary to get rural children to both the preschool and healthcare services required for Head Start. Some Head Start programs are home-based, and use a home visiting model to bring services directly to families, which can be an effective delivery method in rural areas.

Programs that can intervene to address early childhood development include:

  • Comprehensive child wellness programs like Project LAUNCH (Linking Actions for Unmet Needs in Children's Health)
  • Nutrition programs such as the USDA's Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which provides food and nutrition education to pregnant and postpartum women, and infants and children through age 5 who would not otherwise have enough nutritious food, and the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), which helps childcare providers offer high-quality meals to children in daycare and afterschool programs.
  • Home visiting programs that promote maternal and child health, child development, and positive parenting, such as those supported by HRSA's Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting funding.
  • Programs that support full-day, full-year quality childcare, with healthy food, physical activity, appropriate learning opportunities, and role models for healthy emotional and social well-being. For example, Let's Move! Childcare provides tools for childcare providers to help children develop healthy habits.
  • Early childhood education programs like Head Start and Early Head Start, which help low-income families and children get ready for school through preschool education, health, and social services
  • Full-service community schools that use a model like the CDC's Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child (WSCC) approach to help children establish healthy behaviors

Examples of rural projects addressing early childhood development as a social determinant include:

For information on how schools can support health, see RHIhub's topic guide, Rural Schools and Health.


What are the roles of literacy, health literacy, and educational attainment in the health of rural residents?

One of the most obvious impacts of educational attainment on health is indirect – how lower education levels impact job prospects. This chart from the USDA Economic Research Service shows the relationship of education levels and unemployment rates for rural adults:

Unemployement Rates for Nonmetro Adults 25 and Older by Educational Attainment, 2007-14

Source: USDA ERS Chart Gallery

But jobs - and thereby income levels - are not the only impact that education has on well-being.

A 2004 article in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, Literacy and Health Outcomes: A Systematic Review of the Literature, reports on a review of 44 studies which found poorer health outcomes for those with poor reading skills. Studies reviewed linked low literacy to:

  • Less likelihood of having health screenings and prevention services
  • Higher risk of hospitalization
  • Poorer health status

Health literacy is the degree to which patients understand basic health information such as following instructions from a healthcare provider, managing a chronic illness, or taking medication properly. Rural residents are at risk for low health literacy because they have lower educational levels as compared to residents of metropolitan areas. Low health literacy is a particular problem for people in poverty and people with limited education or English proficiency. According to the book, Health Literacy Interventions and Outcomes, limited health literacy is associated with a lower likelihood of using preventive health services, a greater likelihood of taking medicines incorrectly, and poor health status. The report, Health Literacy Practices in Primary Care Settings: Examples from the Field, offers examples that rural healthcare providers can use to improve communication with patients.

Many studies have shown that educational attainment, beyond basic literacy, also impacts health. A 2006 report for the OECD's Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, Measuring the Effects of Education on Health and Civic Engagement: Proceedings of the Copenhagen Symposium, includes the chapter What Are the Effects of Education on Health? This document reviews the evidence that more years of schooling result in:

  • Healthier behaviors
  • Better health outcomes, including birth outcomes
  • Higher use of preventive healthcare
  • Increased life expectancy

A 2011 Population and Development Review article, The Education Effect on Population Health: A Reassessment, points out that many assume education is merely a stand-in for better socioeconomic status. The authors examined a wide range of studies that looked at education and health, and found that when socioeconomic status was controlled for, the positive impact of education persisted. A 2014 Center on Society and Health issue brief, Health Care: Necessary But Not Sufficient, reports that, for a group of patients with the same access to healthcare via coverage by the same healthcare plan and providers, those with less education had poorer health.

The role of education, literacy, and health literacy on health is critical for rural communities, where educational attainment lags behind the nation as a whole.

Education Levels of People 25+

Source: Geographic Comparison Tables 1501 & 1502, 2011-2015 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates

Rural programs to help students complete high school could have a long-term impact on the health of the rural population. Programs to help adults with low literacy improve their reading skills likewise could have health benefits for participants.


What types of environmental hazards do rural communities face that endanger the health of their residents?

Many rural areas face water quality, air quality, and other environmental challenges. Some of these problems are due to limited infrastructure to support public health, while others relate primarily to the impact of agriculture, logging, mining, and other industries on the environment.

Rebuilding the Unity of Health and the Environment in Rural America: Workshop Summary, a 2006 publication from the Institute of Medicine Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Research, and Medicine, reports on environmental concerns faced by some rural communities, including:

  • Exposure to pesticides, chemicals, and other toxins in ground water
  • Air pollution, including dust and soil, pesticides, endotoxins, and other airborne pollutants
  • Exposure to disease and animal waste for those working in animal production

Rural Water Quality

A 2015 report from the Government Accountability Office, Rural Water Infrastructure: Federal Agencies Provide Funding but Could Increase Coordination to Help Communities, reports that rural communities face challenges in paying to improve aging and outdated water and wastewater systems. These challenges result from:

  • Fewer users of the water system to share the cost of major improvement projects
  • Lack of technical expertise, resulting in a need to hire outside consultants to develop a project and complete the documentation required to apply for federal or state assistance

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Healthy Housing Reference Manual, in Chapter 8: Rural Water Supplies and Water-Quality Issues, reports on water quality concerns for water systems not covered by the Safe Water Drinking Act. Rural households relying on well water or water from very small water systems face dangers from chemical and bacterial contamination. The 2013 American Housing Survey (see the Excel file, Table C-04-AO), includes data showing over 25.6% of rural housing units rely on wells serving just 1-5 units, compared to only 11.4% of all housing units.

In addition to the infrastructure challenges, rural water quality may also be impacted by industrial pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency, in a 2015 publication Ground Water Contamination - Getting Up to Speed , identifies the following sources of contamination, all of which may impact rural water quality:

  • Waste from active and abandoned mines
  • Agricultural sources such as pesticides
  • Landfills
  • Road salt
  • Improperly constructed or abandoned wells
  • Underground and aboveground storage tanks

Oil and natural gas production, including hydraulic fracturing (fracking), also can negatively impact rural surface-water and groundwater quality.

Rural Air Quality

Outdoor air quality is critical to health for everyone, and particularly a concern for children, the elderly, people who have underlying health concerns, and those who are frequently outdoors, with health-related impacts of air pollution that include:

  • Asthma and other breathing problems
  • Pneumonia and bronchitis
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
  • Heart disease and stroke
  • Lung cancer

Rural areas face a range of air pollutants caused by:

  • Unpaved roads
  • Rail transport of hazardous materials
  • Pesticides
  • Crop harvesting and storage
  • Livestock feeding and waste
  • Mining, particularly surface mining
  • Oil and natural gas drilling

The National Environmental Public Health Tracking Network provides state and county-level data on outdoor air quality indicators. Select "Search Data" to view:

CDC Screen shot

Examples of rural communities working to address environmental health include:

The West Virginia Rural Health Research Center, which was funded by the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy from 2008-2013, undertook a number of projects related to environmental health. While the center is no longer in existence, an archive of its environmental health projects and publications is available.


How does the quality of housing available in rural areas impact people's health?

While the quality of rural housing has improved in recent decades, there are still pockets of rural America where the housing available doesn't meet the basic health needs of the population. Taking Stock: Rural People, Poverty, and Housing in the 21st Century, a 2012 report from the Housing Assistance Council (HAC), identifies several rural high poverty populations that face particular housing challenges, including farmworkers and people living in Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, on Native American lands, and in the U.S.-Mexico border region.

Some of the key housing concerns that impact health include:

  • Plumbing and wastewater systems, which can impact water quality and contribute to illness
  • Heating and cooling methods, which impact indoor air quality
  • Weatherization needs and energy costs, which impact whether a house can be maintained at a temperature healthy to its inhabitants
  • Safety concerns such as lead-based paint, mold, and pests
  • Overcrowding, which can spread communicable disease and also negatively influences issues such as substance abuse and domestic violence

HAC's Taking Stock report identifies a number of concerns related to rural housing quality:

  • 30% of the nation's housing without piped hot and cold water are in rural areas
  • Some rural residents lack even basic plumbing, with this burden falling disproportionately on those living in colonias on the U.S.-Mexico border, on Native American lands, and in Alaska
  • Overcrowding is a problem among some rural populations, particularly Hispanic residents and Native Americans.
  • Rural minorities are twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to live in substandard housing.
  • Rural renters are more likely to live in substandard housing and to experience multiple housing problems related to affordability, quality deficiencies, and crowding, compared to rural homeowners.

A 2006 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Healthy Housing Reference Manual, reports on other concerns facing rural residents:

  • Drinking water from sources not covered by the Safe Water Drinking Act
  • Reliance on septic tank systems to treat wastewater, which can result in contamination of the water supply
  • Use of fuel-fired heat sources, such as coal, fireplaces, and wood stoves, which put rural residents at risk for fires. These types of heat sources, if not properly vented, may result in poor indoor air quality.

For examples of programs to help address rural housing concerns, see What are some rural housing and weatherization programs? on RHIhub's Human Services to Support Rural Health topic guide.

For additional information on living conditions along the U.S.-Mexico border, see RHIhub's Border Health topic guide.


How does rural homelessness impact health?

A 2009 guide from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Rural Continuums of Care, discusses some of the challenges that rural homeless families and individuals face in accessing healthcare. Rural homeless people are more likely to be uninsured, and the lack of a stable address can make it difficult to enroll in programs they are eligible for, such as Medicaid. Even when coverage is obtained, they may face challenges finding a healthcare provider. Many need help with mental health and substance abuse problems, and the availability of these services is often limited in rural areas.

Homelessness in Rural America, a 2014 policy brief from the National Advisory Committee on Rural Health and Human Services (NACRHHS), offers an overview of how homelessness impacts rural people. Families with children are a bigger proportion of the homeless population in rural areas, compared to urban areas. The children in these families are at risk for a range of health-related consequences. According to a 2012 Child Trends publication, When the Bough Breaks: The Effects of Homelessness on Young Children, children who have unstable housing are more likely to experience:

  • Emotional and behavioral problems
  • Negative impacts on their physical, emotional and cognitive development
  • Hunger
  • Missed educational opportunities and poorer academic performance
  • Acute and chronic health problems
  • Exposure to violence

The NACRHHS brief describes the nature of rural homelessness and the barriers faced by the homeless in rural areas. Rural homeless people are more likely to live in substandard housing, in vehicles, or doubled up with family or friends, rather than on the street. The barriers to addressing rural homelessness include:

  • Difficulty finding transportation to reach services
  • A sense of isolation
  • Lack of homeless-specific services in their community
  • Funding programs that lack the flexibility to meet the particular needs of rural areas
  • Lack of employment opportunities to help people become self-sustaining
  • Difficulty applying for services, either due to lack of a permanent address or lack of Internet access
  • Shortages of affordable housing

Utah, a largely rural state, has worked to address homelessness through a housing-first approach that focuses on getting people in need into housing as quickly as possible and then providing other supportive services. Utah's program involves many different state agencies, which have worked together to reduce homelessness roughly 70% in a ten-year span. Compassionate Collaboration Reduces Homelessness in Utah, in the Fall 2014 issue of the Rural Monitor, reports on how this approach is helping the state's rural homeless population. The Rural Monitor also features other programs aimed at addressing rural homelessness.


How can a lack of transportation options impact low-income, frail elderly, and disabled rural residents?

People living in rural areas tend to be dependent on cars for transportation. These regions often lack the types of public transportation available in more populous areas. Even if there is some form of bus service, it is less likely to run at convenient times for getting to a job, taking children to daycare, or accessing needed healthcare. According to the 2013 American Housing Survey (see the Excel file, Table S-04A-AO), only 3.7% of rural households use public transportation, compared to 17.3% of all U.S. households.

Low-income rural residents who are fortunate enough to own a vehicle may find the cost of gas and maintenance make it difficult to maintain reliable transportation. Poor rural residents' vehicles are often older and unreliable, and rural drivers are likely to be driving longer distances on secondary roads. Depending on the region, weather may also impact road safety. These factors contribute to the higher risk of traffic injury and death for rural residents.

For those who are not able to drive due to physical limitations, lack of transportation options in rural areas can make it difficult to get to the grocery store and pharmacy, take advantage of social interactions that support good mental health, and access healthcare services.

For more information on the impact of transportation on health, see RHIhub's Transportation to Support Rural Healthcare guide.


How do rural residents experience food insecurity?

Many rural residents have fewer choices to buy fresh and affordable food, making it difficult for them to purchase the nutritious food needed to stay healthy. For those on limited incomes and with limited transportation options, it is even more difficult to meet nutritional needs. According to the USDA Economic Research Service report Household Food Security in the United States in 2015, 15.4% of rural households are food insecure, compared to 12.7% for the nation as a whole. Households with children are impacted even more, with 20.5% of rural households with children food insecure, compared to 16.6% overall.

Food insecurity is also related to obesity, and obesity levels in rural areas tend to be higher. Rural Healthy People 2020: A Companion Document to Healthy People 2020, Volume 1 looks at rural food insecurity, obesity, and related health problems in the chapter "Nutrition and Weight Status in Rural Areas."

For an in-depth examination of these issue, see RHIhub's Rural Hunger and Access to Healthy Food and Rural Obesity and Weight Control topic guides.


What additional challenges do rural minorities face related to staying healthy?

Many rural minorities face discrimination and racism that can result in stress, negatively impacting their health. Unfair treatment may impact rural minorities' ability to fully access services to support health, including healthcare services.

A 2009 Journal of Behavioral Medicine review article, Discrimination and Racial Disparities in Health: Evidence and Needed Research, looked at a wide range of studies of the health effects of perceived discrimination in different minority populations. While these studies were not specific to rural areas, rural minorities face the same impacts. Discrimination can result in:

  • Mental health impacts, including stress, anxiety, and depression
  • Violence, including intimate partner violence
  • Raised blood pressure
  • Poorer self-rated health
  • Chronic health conditions
  • Delay or failure to seek treatment, including preventive care
  • Substance abuse

To learn more, see the American Public Health Association webinar series, The Impact of Racism on the Health and Well-Being of the Nation.

Cultural beliefs can also act as a social determinant for minority groups. A belief might undermine health. For example, not expecting a long lifespan may result in life choices that don't support health. Cultural beliefs may also serve as barriers to connecting with healthcare providers.

Culture as a Social Determinant of Health: Examples from Native Communities, a 2012 paper commissioned by the Institute of Medicine's Roundtable on the Promotion of Health Equity and the Elimination of Health Disparities, discusses how a healthcare system that doesn't respect the beliefs and culture of Native American patients may result in patient experiences that include:

  • Patients not following healthcare providers' advice and instructions
  • Reluctance to use the healthcare system
  • An experience of alienation, fear, and disrespect

Healthcare providers, in turn, may misunderstand their patients, assuming they are not interested in their own health or not able to follow instructions. The development of cultural competence is a key method for healthcare providers to help better address the needs of minority populations.

For a comprehensive, though not rural-specific, look at the impact of the social determinants of health on racial and ethnic minorities, see the March 2016 National Academy of Medicine discussion paper, Building a Culture of Health Equity at the Federal Level.

Examples of rural communities working to address these challenges include:

For more project examples, see Rural Health Models & Innovations by Topic: Minorities.


How do rural residents access human services that help them address social determinants of health?

A range of federal and state programs address human needs, from income supports to job training to housing assistance and more. For detailed information on services available in rural communities:

The NACRHHS policy brief, The Intersection of Rural Poverty and Federal Human Services Programs, features case studies of two communities using strategies to integrate services to make it easier for people experiencing poverty to access the range of services they need. RHIhub's Rural Services Integration Toolkit is a guide to developing programs that integrate rural health and human services to better meet rural residents' needs. The toolkit identifies 9 programs in a variety of settings and regions that are taking different approaches to services integration.

State human service agencies provide varying degrees of access to services and to assistance programs via online portals. When available, together with adequate broadband service and other necessary infrastructure, access to human services is faster and easier. Some agencies also offer mobile van services to rural residents, although these tend to be confined to specific populations such as migrant workers.


How do telephone services and broadband access impact health?

Access to basic telephone service and smartphone technology helps ensure that rural residents can:

  • Make appointments with healthcare providers and other service providers
  • Contact emergency medical services
  • Receive health coaching and other disease management services available by phone
  • Stay in touch with family and friends, which may allow rural older adults to stay independent longer

Connectivity now plays a much greater role in healthcare, with broadband access offering the potential for rural residents to:

  • Learn about health topics online
  • Access their electronic health records
  • Participate in home monitoring telehealth services
  • Have face-to-face connections to distant family and friends
  • Learn about and access government programs

Despite the promise of this technology, not all families are in a position to take advantage of these opportunities. According to the Pew Research Center's report Home Broadband 2015, only 55% of rural households have home broadband access, compared to 67% of urban and 70% of suburban households.

The Federal Communications Commission's Lifeline Program can help make telephone service more affordable for low-income people. To better meet the expanding need for connectivity, in March 2016 the program was expanded to also support discounted broadband for those who qualify.


How do the social determinants impact healthcare access for rural residents and how does healthcare access itself act as a social determinant of health for rural people?

Social determinants that impact access to healthcare include:

  • Poverty, income, and employment status, all of which contribute to whether an individual has:
    • Health insurance coverage, whether through an employer, a public program, or their own purchase
    • The ability to pay out-of-pocket costs such as co-pays and prescription drug costs
    • Time off work to go to an appointment
    • A means of transportation to visit a healthcare provider
  • The skills to effectively communicate with healthcare providers and self-manage their care.
  • An expectation that they will receive quality care, whatever their race/ethnicity or income level.

Healthcare access can itself act as a social determinant for rural residents. Living in a rural community that has limited health services available is an added barrier to achieving good health. The burden may be a lack of a specific kind of service, such as dental or behavioral health services, or may be related to the hours that a service is available, for example weekends and evenings. A June 2016 issue brief, Impacts of the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid Expansion on Insurance Coverage and Access to Care, found that increased healthcare access through Medicaid expansion improved individuals' financial well-being.

Certain public health services, which support population health, may also be less available in rural communities. For example, rural residents have less access to fluoridated water. While this is partly because they are more likely to be on well water, rural water systems are also less likely to be fluoridated. For more information on fluoridation, see Where can I find information about fluoridation in rural community water supplies? on RHIhub's Oral Health in Rural Communities topic guide. For additional information on rural public health services, see RHIhub's Rural Public Health topic guide.

A lack of healthcare and public health access may also deter businesses from locating in or expanding in a rural community, meaning fewer jobs that could lift rural residents up and make it easier for them to achieve good health. A 2006 Health Services Research article, The Effect of Rural Hospital Closures on Community Economic Health, reports that communities where the sole hospital closed saw both a reduction in per-capita income and an increase in unemployment.

For a more in-depth discussion of healthcare access, see RHIhub's Healthcare Access in Rural Communities topic guide.


Last Reviewed: 7/29/2016