Finding Statistics and Data Related to Rural Health
This guide will help you locate and fairly and accurately use statistics and data in order to:
- Understand rural health needs and rural/urban disparities,
- Communicate rural health needs, and
- Inform decision-making related to service delivery and policy
For a comprehensive look at major rural-relevant statistical sources, please also see RHIhub's Data Sources & Tools Relevant to Rural Health. This list includes data sources focused on healthcare services, health status, demographics, and social determinants of health. For each source, it identifies the topics covered, ease of use, geographic level of data, and update frequency.
Frequently Asked Questions
- What sources provide access to rural or rural-relevant data?
- What sources offer county-level data? How might county-level data be useful?
- What sources provide health services data for rural areas or by county?
- What sources cover health behaviors and health status for rural areas or by county?
- What sources of training and technical assistance are available to learn about U.S. Census data?
- What are some of the limitations and considerations related to American Community Survey data for rural areas?
- What challenges or limitations do researchers face when analyzing health data for rural populations?
- The data I've found seems old. Why are data releases often several years old? How can I decide if the data I have is too old to be useful?
- How can I find out how the demographics or population of an area are changing over time?
- How can I compare data for one geographic region or area to another? Why would I want to?
- What should I be aware of when seeking to compare data from different sources?
- What types of statistical sources can I find for my area on RHIhub's state guides? What about the state-by-state guide?
- What types of rural statistics can I find on RHIhub's topic guides?
- What other sources in my state can I contact to find data that may be collected here but not nationally?
What sources provide access to rural or rural-relevant data?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) focused on rural health issues in a special 2017 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) Rural Health Series. Reports in the series provide rural-specific data on a wide range of topics, including specific health conditions and health-related behaviors. In addition, the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) produces Data Briefs, timely short reports that present descriptive data, several of which have focused on rural/urban aspects of health.
The Rural Health Reform Policy Research Center's 2014 Update of the Rural-Urban Chartbook is a compendium of national and regional rural health statistics, based on 2006-2011 data. Information is provided for five levels of rural/urban status, based on classification at the county level. Topics covered include demographics, health behaviors and risk factors, mortality rates, healthcare access and use, and other health measures. Individual data tables are available in an Excel file. It is an update of the National Center for Health Statistics report, Health, United States, 2001: With Urban and Rural Health Chartbook.
The Health Resources and Services Administration’s April 2015 publication, The Health and Well-Being of Children in Rural Areas: A Portrait of the Nation 2011–2012, provides information on rural children based on data from the National Survey of Children’s Health. Topics addressed include health status, access to healthcare, and health insurance coverage. The report also addresses factors that influence a child’s health related to family life, parental health status and behaviors, school, and neighborhood.
The USDA Economic Research Service's State Fact Sheets offer total, rural, and urban statistics nationally and for each state on population, food security, income, education, employment, and other topics. It is a quick place to access a range of rural data for your state, pulled from different federal sources.
The U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey (ACS) includes data that can be limited to rural, using the Census Bureau definition of rural, as well as the OMB definition of metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas. The ACS includes a wide range of information on demographics, health insurance coverage, disability, education, poverty, income, and much more.
The Housing Assistance Council's Rural Data Portal provides national and state demographic, social, economic, and housing data, with the option to limit to rural.
For a detailed list of options, see RHIhub's Data Sources & Tools Relevant to Rural Health, which lists major rural-relevant statistical sources, topics covered, and geographic breakdowns available.
What sources offer county-level data? How might county-level data be useful?
The county (and county equivalents such as parishes in Louisiana and boroughs in Alaska) is a geographic unit that is familiar, easy to understand, and consistent over time. Counties have constant boundaries and so can be useful in comparing changes over time for a set geographic area. A county or set of counties may be a useful service area to describe when applying for funding or describing a particular issue or need. There is a caveat regarding Alaskan boroughs: they are typically reported consistently within a single data source, but may be inconsistent between two different data sources. Furthermore, a large portion of Alaska is not assigned to a borough and is referred to as the
Many types of data are available at the county level. Many urban/rural classification schemes are county-based. Therefore, county-level data are useful in that they can be applied to different urban/rural measures. Also, counties themselves may be identified as rural, based on the Office of Management and Budget definition of counties as Metropolitan, Micropolitan, or Noncore. Both the Micropolitan and Noncore counties constitute "nonmetropolitan" areas, which are frequently considered "rural." For more information on rural definitions, see the What is Rural? topic guide.
- County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, a program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, brings together county-level health data on key health factors and health outcomes from a wide range of data sources. It is the most broad and easy to access county-level health data available. Its Peer Counties Tool identifies counties similar on key indicators, for comparison nationwide. County Health Rankings and Roadmaps offers recorded webinars that discuss the information available from their web site and how it can be used by communities. They also offer a project showcase that describes ways the County Health Rankings information is being used.
- The National Association of Counties (NACo) County Explorer offers county-level data on a wide range of indicators and includes an option to compare the county to other counties.
- U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts is a good starting point for beginner data users to access data from over 10 Census Bureau censuses, surveys, and programs. It offers data on the population and demographics for each county, as well as information on housing, income, and other social determinants of health. QuickFacts also identifies each county's land area and people per square mile. It is easy to add additional geographies for comparison, such as neighboring counties, the state, or the nation as a whole. QuickFacts also offers data for cities and towns with a population of 5,000 or more.
- The USDA Economic Research Service's Atlas of Rural and Small-Town America provides access to 60 county-level socioeconomic indicators, including data from the American Community Survey and Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Atlas includes data on total population change trends for particular demographic groups.
- The USDA Economic Research Service also maintains the Food Environment Atlas, which contains county-level information on social determinants of health, such as access to grocery stores and presence of local farmer’s markets, together with health measures such as child and adult obesity rates. A related resource, the Food Access Research Atlas, describes food deserts, areas with poor access to high quality foods, at the local level.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Environmental Public Health Tracking Network offers county-level reports via its Info by Location tool which includes data on air quality, extreme heat, access to parks, and proximity to highways.
- The Housing Assistance Council's Rural Data Portal provides county-level demographic, social, economic, and housing data.
- The National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics provides downloadable files of county-level statistics related to the veteran population.
- The Annie E. Casey Foundation's KIDS COUNT Data Center offers county-level data on children covering demographics and other topics related to children's health and welfare.
For a detailed list of options, see RHIhub's Data Sources & Tools Relevant to Rural Health, which lists major rural statistical sources, topic covered, and geographic breakdowns available.
What sources provide health services data for rural areas or by county?
The following sources include health services data:
- The 2014 Update of the Rural-Urban Chartbook, a publication of the Rural Health Reform Policy Center, includes national and regional data for 5 levels of rural-urban status. It covers healthcare access and use, including physician and dentist supply, hospital utilization, and substance abuse treatment. Individual data tables are available in an Excel file.
- The Health and Well-Being of Children in Rural Areas: A Portrait of the Nation 2011–2012, a publication of the Health Resources and Services Administration, in its section on Health Care, includes information on healthcare access for rural children, including preventive care, dental care, and mental health services.
Health, United States, a publication from the National Center for Health
Statistics, includes nonmetropolitan data on healthcare access and utilization. See the Data Finder and select
Metropolitan and nonmetropolitanunder Population Subgroups.
- County Health Rankings & Roadmaps offers county-by-county data on the supply of primary care physicians, dentists, and mental health providers in its Access to Care category of measures.
The American Academy of Family Physicians Population Health
Mapper, part of the HealthLandscape Community Vital Signs
interactive mapping system, can show the location of healthcare facilities and shortage designation areas,
combination with other county-level data relevant to health. Make selections in the the
- The Health Resources and Services Administration's data.HRSA.gov has county-level data on health centers, National Health Service Corps sites, and shortage areas.
- The Association of American Medical Colleges report, Diversity in the Physician Workforce: Facts & Figures 2014, provides county-level MD physician data via an interactive map in Section III, and national rural primary care and specialist data by race/ethnicity in Section V, Table 12.
- The Commonwealth Fund's
Health System Data Center has data on healthcare access, quality, cost, and
by hospital referral region. Select the "Local Area Ranking" for the scorecard:
- The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality's Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project
(HCUP) offers county-level data for selected states via HCUPnet, with data on all hospital stays,
diagnosis/procedure, and quality indicators. Choose “Create a New Analysis”, then select
Community and specify location, year, and type of analysis:
- The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality's Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS) is a set of surveys of households and the healthcare providers used by members of the household. MEPS tracks each sampled household for a period of two years, conducting five interviews, one every six months. MEPS interviews ask about the health and health services use of all family members and costs to the household of both services and health insurance. MEPSnet provides online access to national and state-level data. Rural/urban analyses can only be carried out in an AHRQ-approved Research Data Center.
- The Bureau of Economic Analysis provides data on income by industry at the county level, under "Local Area Personal Income and Employment". This information can be narrowed to the NAICS classification of "Health Care and Social Assistance" or more specifically to focus on just ambulatory care or hospitals, although that level of narrowing may result in some counties not having meaningful data.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Interactive Atlas of Heart Disease and Stroke provides county-level data and maps on heart disease and stroke, with information on health services available and location of healthcare facilities.
- The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services CMS Data Navigator helps identify county-level data sources covering a range of CMS programs.
- The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Medicare Geographic Variation Dashboards offer county-level data on Medicare fee-for-service costs, with a comparison to state and national averages.
- The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Market Saturation and Utilization Data Tool offers national, state, and county-level data on provider services and utilization for ambulance services, home health, hospice, long-term care, and other services.
- The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's National Survey on Drug Use and Health includes rural-specific data on mental health services and substance abuse treatment. Look for detailed tables that list "Geographic Characteristics."
What sources cover health behaviors and health status for rural areas or by county?
- The CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) Rural Health Series includes reports on specific health conditions and health-related behaviors.
- The 2014 Update of the Rural-Urban Chartbook, a publication of the Rural Health Reform Policy Center, includes national and regional data for 5 levels of rural-urban status. It covers infant mortality, death rates for specific health conditions, smoking, alcohol consumption, obesity, physical inactivity, and more. Individual data tables are available in an Excel file.
- The Health and Well-Being of Children in Rural Areas: A Portrait of the Nation 2011–2012, a publication of the Health Resources and Services Administration, in its section on Health Status, includes information on rural children related to chronic conditions, oral health, obesity, and more.
Health, United States, a publication from the National Center for Health
Statistics, includes nonmetropolitan data on health status, risk factors, preventive care, and more. See the
Data Finder and select
Metropolitan and nonmetropolitanunder Population Subgroups.
Healthy People's DATA2020
includes data on health-related behaviors, health conditions, and more. After selecting a topic and measure,
View data by groupand look for Geographic Location to find rural/urban data.
- The National Health Interview Survey results are available in Tables of Summary Health Statistics, which include metropolitan versus non-metropolitan data on health status, healthcare access, and limitations in activities due to chronic conditions. Quarterly estimates of key health indicators by metropolitan status from NHIS are also available.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's CDC WONDER provides National Vital Statistics System birth and mortality data by county, including information for specific causes of death, by level of urbanization.
- The National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities' HDPulse Data Portal offers health disparities data at the county level on mortality by cause of death, as well as data on risk factors and health screening.
- The Blue Cross Blue Shield Health Index offers county-level comprehensive health scores, as well as data on top health conditions impacting each county, based on claims data from Blue Cross Blue Shield commercially insured members.
- County Health Rankings & Roadmaps offers county-by-county data on health behaviors, social and economic factors, and the environment.
- The American Academy of Family Physicians Population Health Mapper, part the HealthLandscape Community Vital Signs, provides county-level data on health status and health behaviors.
- The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Medicare Chronic Conditions Dashboards offer county-level data on chronic disease prevalence, utilization, and spending for Medicare beneficiaries. Its Mapping Medicare Disparities tool covers similar topics, with a focus on health disparities, allowing you to view data by age, race/ethnicity, and gender.
- The Commonwealth Fund's Health System Data Center has data on health status by hospital referral region. Select the "Local Area Ranking" for the scorecard and look for "Healthy Lives" under the measures.
- The KIDS COUNT Data Center includes county-level children's health data on birth outcomes, deaths, participation in federal health-related programs, child abuse and neglect, and other health-related topics.
- The National Cancer Institute's State Cancer Profiles provide county-level data and maps on cancer burden, by cancer type and demographic group, as well as screening and risk factor data.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Interactive Atlas of Heart Disease and Stroke provides county-level data and maps on heart disease and stroke, with information available by demographic group. It also covers social determinants of health.
- The USDA Food Environment Atlas provides county-level data on obesity and resources for physical activity.
- The National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention (NCHHSTP) at the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention sponsors the NCHHSTP AtlasPlus, which provides county-level data for those diseases. County-level data on HIV are suppressed when there are fewer than five cases.
- The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's National Survey on Drug Use and Health includes rural-specific data on mental health conditions and substance abuse incidence. Look for detailed tables that list "Geographic Characteristics."
What sources of training and technical assistance are available to learn about U.S. Census data?
The U.S. Census Bureau’s Census Academy offers a range of training options for learning how to use Census Bureau tools and access Census data. These include web-based and in-person classes, video tutorials, recorded webinars, and other training resources.
The American Community Survey offers a series, Handbooks for Data Users, with a variety of guides to using the ACS for different purposes.
The Census Bureau has regional data dissemination staff that provide training and technical assistance regarding Census Bureau data. The Census Bureau also partners with State Data Centers, which offer additional assistance.
What are some of the limitations and considerations related to American Community Survey data for rural areas?
As of 2015, counties with a population below 65,000 have access to American Community Survey (ACS) estimates averaged over 5-year periods. Prior to 2015, areas with a population between 20,000 and 65,000 also had the option of estimates averaged over 3-year periods, but those estimates have been discontinued. Areas with a population of 65,000 or more, in comparison, can get annual estimates. Rural areas rely on less-frequent estimates because it takes longer to collect a statistically accurate estimate, given the smaller population.
|Population||ACS Estimates Available|
|65,000 or more||1-year|
A March 2010 RUPRI data brief by Kathleen Miller, The American Community Survey: What it Means for County Data, identifies some disadvantages that result from this averaging:
- Rural counties have fewer data points to pick from to demonstrate that they meet criteria listed in funding or other opportunities.
- High and low points will be harder to pinpoint in time.
- Highs and lows will be averaged out over the longer time-frame, causing it to appear that rural areas are doing better or worse than they actually are.
This RUPRI map identifies counties that had 1-year estimates for 2017 in green. All other counties had 5-year estimates:
Other special considerations related to the ACS data for rural areas:
- ACS data should only be compared for the same type of estimate (1-year to 1-year, 5-year to 5-year), and for non-overlapping time periods. An area with 5-year data would only have 2 comparison points per decade. For example, 2005-2009 data could be compared to 2010-2014 data.
- For areas that only have 5-year estimates available, short-term population changes may be "smoothed" by the longer time-frame estimates.
- The margin of error for areas with smaller populations may be quite high. ACS data are just estimates.
The August 2009 U.S. Census Bureau report A Compass for Understanding and Using American Community Survey Data: What Users of Data for Rural Areas Need to Know, provides additional insights about how data for rural areas is collected and should be interpreted and used.
What challenges or limitations do researchers face when analyzing health data for rural populations?
A 1998 issue paper from the National Rural Health Association, Facilitating the Use of National Surveys in Rural Health Research, identified confidentiality and sample size as two challenges faced by researchers interested in studying rural populations. Unfortunately, this situation has not changed since the paper was published.
Why do health-related data for rural communities pose confidentiality concerns? An individual with a particular diagnosis might be identifiable based on their condition, either alone or in combination with other data collected, such as age, gender, or date of service. Typically, this type of data is not publicly available, so a researcher who needs access may face barriers or extra steps to get the data.
The sample size collected in rural areas by national surveys may not be adequate to allow for meaningful comparison of the rural area to more populous regions. The ACS addresses this by offering multi-year estimates.
The data I've found seems old. Why are data releases often several years old? How can I decide if the data I have is too old to be useful?
It takes time for data that has been collected to be ready for use. The organization or researcher who collected the data must review it to identify problems such as incomplete submissions, invalid answers, or other problems with the information that makes it suspect. In addition, the data may need to be formatted to match previously collected data and moved to an accessible location.
In addition to the lag time that naturally occurs in collecting and sharing data, there may be gaps because a survey isn't conducted every year or perhaps was a one-time collection that won't be repeated. It is up to you as the user to decide if the older data is still useful or if it would be better to acknowledge that there is no current data available. You could also seek out other sources of data on the topic or request that an organization repeat a survey it has done in the past.
How can I find out how the demographics or population of an area are changing over time?
The USDA Economic Research Service's Atlas of Rural and Small-Town America provides maps and data showing how the population as a whole is changing, as well as population changes by race/ethnicity and by age. ERS also provides a brief overview, with maps and charts, of Components of Population Change for rural areas.
The U.S. Census Bureau's Population Estimates offer both annual and multi-year population change data by county.
The U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey releases data every year. For larger communities, annual estimates can be compared from year to year. For smaller population areas, where multi-year estimates are released, care must be taken when comparing overlapping estimates.
How can I compare data for one geographic region or area to another? Why would I want to?
In comparing data from different geographic areas, it is important to be sure that you are comparing similar data - that is, that it was collected using the same methods and for the same time period. Many of the data sources identified here offer data for each state or for each county, allowing you to compare how different areas are faring. This can be helpful, for example, in arguing to funding agencies that there is an unusual need in your area that is important to address.
What should I be aware of when seeking to compare data from different sources?
A recorded webinar, Comparing and Linking Survey Data: Considerations for Working with Multiple Data Sources presented by Jill Boylston Herndon of the Institute for Child Health Policy, covers these considerations in comparing data from different sources:
- Primary purpose of the survey
- Target population, as well as what demographic breakdowns are available
- Rural definitions used
- Survey methodology
- Question wording
If you are not trained in health services research, it would likely be easiest and safest to just compare data from the same source, rather than attempting to directly compare data from one source to another. You could instead include charts or tables with data from different sources side-by-side, with relevant information about differences in data collection methods or target audience.
What types of statistical sources can I find for my area on RHIhub's state guides? What about the state-by-state guide?
Each state guide includes reports and publications specific to that state that address rural health issues, and many of these include statistics. State-produced reports are more likely to focus on concerns that are of particular interest in your state and to look at service areas from a locally-informed perspective. RHIhub's state guides may also list web-based resources that provide access to statistics, as well as maps that illustrate healthcare needs in the state.
The state-by-state guide features resources that provide information for most or all states on topics relevant to rural health. These types of resources can offer additional insights about your state's rural health needs and also offer a comparison to other states.
What types of rural statistics can I find on RHIhub's topic guides?
RHIhub's topic guides address many issues important to rural health related to population health, the healthcare workforce, health services, and more. The guides identify key reports from federal agencies and national organizations that address the issue, and many of these publications include rural statistics in the form of charts, tables, and maps. The topic guides also list publicly accessible databases and websites that provide statistics. Finally, guide introductions and frequently asked questions often include key statistics as part of their overview of the topic.
What other sources in my state can I contact to find data that may be collected here but not nationally?
These organizations may be able to help you identify additional rural or county-level data available in your state:
- State Data Center
- State Office of Rural Health
- State Health Department
- State Rural Health Association
- State Long-term Care Association
- State licensing boards for: Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, Dentistry, and other health professions
- Additional state organizations interested in rural health, which you can find via your RHIhub State Guide under the Organizations section.
- The County Health Rankings & Roadmaps offers a guide, Find More Data, that provides links to a number of state-specific data resources.
Last Reviewed: 4/24/2019