Not long ago I received a call from my doctor’s receptionist. My long-time primary care physician and partner in healthcare decision-making was retiring her practice, she said, along with two other doctors in our small town. Together they would be leaving 4,000 patients to find care in a community where most physicians are not taking new patients because they are already overwhelmed by their caseload.
I felt especially troubled by the news since I don’t go to just any doctor, even if one is available. As a proactive health consumer, I research providers carefully because I want to work with someone with proven competence, a compassionate heart, and a philosophy of primary health care that supports my own. Finding a doc like that is not easy. It’s especially challenging when there are too few physicians available.
I also realized that I had become part of the troubling landscape of rural health care. I was suddenly caught up in a picture represented by facts and statistics like these: Disparities in access to healthcare for people who live in rural areas of America continue to widen. Recruiting physicians willing to work in isolated areas has also become more difficult, and is not helped by Donald Trump’s plans with respect to work visas and travel bans. Rural hospitals are closing at an alarming rate. In the past six years, 80 of them have closed and if the rate of closures holds, 25 percent of rural hospitals are predicted to close in less than a decade.
The number of doctors per 100,000 residents is 40 in rural areas compared to 53 in urban environments. That’s not counting specialists, where the comparison is 30 to 263. More than half of our counties have no practicing psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker while opioid-related addictions and overdoses are disproportionately higher in rural areas.
In addition, America’s rural population is older, makes less money, smokes more, is generally less healthy, and uses Medicaid more frequently. Diabetes and coronary heart disease are more prevalent in rural areas and the death rates for rural white women have increased as much as 30 percent in recent years, reversing previous trends.
Studies published in the British Medical Journal recently revealed a severe lack of resources at rural hospitals, sparse staffing and limited access to specialist consultations and diagnostic tools. An attempt to reduce emergency department admissions for cost-cutting is also putting patients at risk.
The situation is complex and challenging due to economic factors, social differences, educational shortcomings, lack of understanding and political will among legislators, and the isolation of living in remote areas, according to the National Rural Health Association.
Some health care analysts and managers advocate for increased use of technology to help solve the growing problems in rural health care delivery, arguing that while technology won’t solve all the problems, it can make a discernable difference. For example, the Institute of Medicine believes that telemedicine can allow rural hospitals to “cut down on the time it takes rural patients to receive care, particularly specialty care.”
That’s all well and good, perhaps, when it comes to hospitals reducing costs and meeting their other needs. But where does it leave me, and other rural patients, when we’re sitting in our johnnies waiting to (literally) see our doctors? Where is the comforting face-to-face communication and the physical observation so vital to a clinician’s assessment of a patient’s condition and emotional state? Where is the Q&A necessary for shared decision-making? I once left a practice because my doctor, who had previously looked me in the eye when we talked, listened carefully to what I said, and talked to me like a peer, suddenly couldn’t get his face out of his computer screen long enough to greet me when I entered the room.
As I search for a new doctor – the right doctor – in the coming days, I recognize that like many others, I have a big challenge ahead. For me that challenge goes beyond numbers - something the profession includes in discussions of “accessibility.” It involves trust, proven skills, two-way communication - often around intimate issues or possible critical life decisions - and mutual respect.
Such a partnership for health is not easy to find no matter where one lives. In rural America, it is becoming even more difficult. Patience and perseverance in selecting, hopefully, from a crop of good new physicians, may be just what the doctor – and this community -need to order.