Living in a rural area has its benefits. For instance, small tight-knit communities often look out for one another. There’s typically less crime than one might find in a large, urban environment. Fresh air and a sense of calm and quiet are just a few more reasons to embrace rural living.
However, there are also downsides. Many communities face barriers to quality healthcare and solid health information — and the reasons for this are manifold:
The Shortage Is Real
Texas, in particular, is facing multiple challenges with healthcare access. While many hear about the “booming” city of Austin or the many opportunities Dallas affords, the sheer size of the state presents various hurdles in respect to healthcare.
According to the Rural Health Information Hub (RHIB), Texas covers 261,797 square miles, with a 2019 estimated population of 28,995,881 people. Of those, 3,075,261 people live in rural areas of Texas. Unfortunately, federal authorities designate 75% of counties in Texas as Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSA) and/or Medically Underserved Areas (MUA), per the Texas Rural Health Association (TRHA). This deficiency includes:
- 64 counties without a hospital
- 25 counties without a primary care physician
With over 3 million individuals with limited and inadequate access to affordable, quality healthcare, the state is working hard to both raise awareness around health disparities and also address them.
What Specific Obstacles Do Rural Communities Encounter?
The solution to this problem would be easier to achieve if there were just “one” cause to pinpoint. However, the reasons for lesser quality of care in rural areas are many:
- Lack of Insurance. Statistics reported by RHIB indicate that in 2019, nearly one-fifth of Texas residents did not have health insurance. As a result, in fear of astronomical medical bills, many avoid or delay care altogether.
- Reduced Income. Even with insurance, copays can be financially unattainable for some families. Certain services such as dental care, mental/behavioral health care or specialty scans (MRI, CT, PET, stress test, etc.) may not be covered with insurance. Putting food on the table becomes more important than going deeper into debt due to medical bills.
- Transportation/Commute to Care. With Texas as such a large state, the nearest medical facility could be miles away for people in rural areas. Therefore, access to healthcare is diminished if transportation is unavailable or individuals cannot take time off work to make the necessary commute. This issue is especially concerning for elderly individuals who may no longer feel comfortable driving or do not have a driver’s license.
- Cultural/Language Barriers. Texas is a diverse state. Unfortunately, limited access to primary care providers and hospitals worsens due to an inadequate supply of physicians, nurses and support staff who can effectively communicate in different languages. Providers may also lack specific cultural understanding — which heightens hesitation among patients.
- Privacy/Trust Issues in the Healthcare Industry. Privacy has become an increasing concern in all industries, healthcare included. Patients want to know their health records are safe. However, older patients, in particular, may mistrust the move towards digital record-keeping and interoperability, or they may misunderstand the protocols put in place to protect them.
- Insufficient Health Literacy. To optimize health literacy, patients need access to knowledgeable providers. This issue in Texas is two-pronged: there are not enough providers, and some healthcare organizations lack proper health literacy themselves. If patients want to learn more about their health, they may turn to questionable online resources with misinformation.
Finding Innovative Solutions to Rural Healthcare’s Problems
Healthcare access is a crucial component of quality outcomes. So, addressing these significant issues is critical to ensuring every individual can get care when they need it — whether or not they reside in Texas. Using a strategy like telemedicine to connect providers with patients in their homes, as well as partner with larger hospitals on complex cases, will mitigate the challenges rural communities face.
It’s also essential that providers can create innovative solutions to rural healthcare obstacles. Much of that preparation occurs throughout the educational process.
For example, the course titled Healthcare Policy & Social Justice in the Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) – Nursing Administration online program from Texas A&M International University explores cultural and ethical issues in patient care, such as health disparities and social determinants of health. This course also focuses on the development of healthcare policies to reduce disparities.
An additional course titled Population Health focuses on wellness promotion, disease prevention and health education — all of which are integral for ensuring rural community members are active participants in their own health and well-being.
Striving for a Better Future Among Rural Communities
No one should ever be without quality care. While limited healthcare access is still a reality for millions, the healthcare industry has a responsibility to continue striving for more widespread, adequate care for all individuals — rural or urban.