Trusted medical advice from the
American Academy of Family Physicians.

Accessing Care in Rural Communities

Most of us can find a doctor or a hospital nearby. Rural residents struggle to find health care in their towns and counties. Some people have to drive an hour or more to find the nearest doctor or hospital. There are other barriers, too. These include the financial means to pay for health care, not being fluent in English, a poor understanding of health and medical issues, privacy concerns, and quality care. Rural areas must overcome certain stigmas, too. These may include substance abuse and mental health challenges.

Path to improved well being

It’s important for people to access basic health care services. This includes primary care, dental, mental, emergency, and public health services. The benefits of these services include:

  • Overall wellbeing (physical, social, emotional).
  • Disease prevention and vaccinations.
  • Health screenings, diagnosis, detection, and treatment.
  • Preventable death.
  • Improved life expectancy.

Residents and health care providers are working to improve rural health. Some of the improvements include :

  • Non-traditional care models. These include freestanding emergency departments (FSEDs), community paramedicine facilities (staffed by emergency medical technicians EMTs), the community health worker (CHW), and team-based care models. This includes patient-centered medical homes (PCMHs).
  • Partnerships with larger systems or networks. This makes it affordable to operate a facility in a rural community.
  • Workforce changes. This involves allowing medical professionals to be flexible. This includes letting them work at the top of their license, using new types of providers, combining teams, and adjusting schedules to offer office visits outside the typical work day.
  • This has become a popular option in rural communities. Patients can access physician visits by Skype or other technology.
  • Patient education. By improving healthy living among residents in rural communities, it can improve overall health. This includes important education about health screenings, vaccinations, smoking cessation, alcohol and substance abuse, weight loss, physical activity, and general safety (home and car).
  • Talk with the nearest health provider. See if he or she has recommendations for the care you and your family needs.

Several organizations work to improve rural health care. These include:

  • Federal Office of Rural Health Policy (FORHP)
  • Rural Health Research Centers
  • The National Rural Health Association (NRHA)
  • The National Association of Rural Health Clinics (NARHC)
  • The American Hospital Association (AHA) Section for Small or Rural Hospitals
  • State offices of Rural Health (SORHs) and State Rural Health Associations
  • The National Organization of State Offices of Rural Health (NOSORH)
  • The National Rural Recruitment and Retention Network (3RNet)

Things to consider

If you live in a rural community and don’t have easy access to health care, some things can help. These include:

  • Stay safe on the job if you are involved in farming, forestry, or other occupations using large equipment. Follow all equipment safety instructions.
  • Don’t smoke, vape, or use tobacco products of any kind.
  • Limit your alcohol use.
  • Do not share prescription pain medicine with others. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about where to dispose unused medications.
  • Eat healthy and exercise.
  • Schedule regular health screenings. This includes breast, colon, testicular, heart, and other important conditions.
  • Manage your health if you have been diagnosed with a chronic disease. This includes conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
  • Buckle up when you are in the car. This includes the driver and passengers.
  • Don’t ignore mental, emotional, and intellectual needs. If you have a child with special needs, seek help from your doctor. Your child may need medical, physical, occupational, and speech therapy.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Am I at an increased risk for disease and premature death if I live in a rural area?
  • Is Life Flight available in rural areas to get an emergency case to a hospital?
  • What diseases and conditions are most common to rural areas?
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