The Challenge of Rural Health Care

In our last post we discussed why rural hospitals are such a vital lifeline to the communities they serve. Both rural elderly and their caregivers heavily depend upon rural hospitals.

Yet rural hospitals do not have it easy. They face unique challenges due to geographic isolation, recruitment challenges, limited workforce and constrained financial resources. Compounding these issues, rural Americans have lower incomes and tend to have less medical coverage or none at all. They are on average older and less healthy than Americans living in urban areas. Nearly half of rural residents report having at least one major chronic illness.

According to American Hospital Association research, rural hospitals are typically much smaller than their urban and suburban counterparts. Nearly half have 25 or fewer beds. Despite a smaller size and smaller base of patients, rural hospitals still have to maintain a broad range of basic services and purchase much of the same equipment as larger hospitals in order to meet the health care needs of their communities.  Yet with fewer patients over which to spread fixed expenses, the overhead for rural hospitals is higher.

How are rural hospitals meeting the challenge? Telemedicine has become an essential means for rural hospitals to improve the quality of patient care and their own bottom line. The American Telemedicine Association defines telemedicine as  the use of medical information exchanged from one site to another via electronic communications to improve a patient’s clinical health status. In a future post we will discuss how telemedicine is transforming healthcare delivery and some of the positive impacts it is having on rural health.