In rural healthcare settings, providers have to learn to overcome challenges that aren’t typical of urban areas.
For one thing, serving smaller populations means rural healthcare providers have to provide a broad range of care — often to a larger geographic area. Unfortunately, demand greatly exceeds supply: For every 100,000 people in rural America, there are only about 40 physicians. In comparison, urban populations see 53 physicians for every 100,000 residents.
Rural physicians are also often treating people who are older and sicker. In comparison to urban residents, rural residents are more likely to smoke cigarettes, have high blood pressure, and be overweight. What’s the root of these health disparities? Social determinants of health (SDOH) such as poverty, food insecurity, deficient health literacy, and lack of transportation.
These factors contribute significantly to someone’s overall health and well-being. For instance, lower rates of health literacy in rural areas mean individuals may not know when to seek medical care or how to navigate the American healthcare system. Additionally, a lack of transportation can prevent members from attending essential appointments. As a result, symptoms of chronic illnesses may go unchecked until a medical emergency.
What are some solutions that rural providers can offer to overcome these challenges and promote health among rural populations? It all starts with a whole health approach.
Why We Need to Address Health Literacy Problems Head-On
A whole health approach doesn’t just consider the symptoms of a members’ health condition — it looks at all the factors that impact a person’s well-being, including health literacy levels. In fact, one of the most important aspects of a whole health system is improving health literacy.
Providers can start by making health information easy for members to access and understand. However, it’s one thing for providers to understand the elements of a member’s whole health — members themselves must also grasp the connection. Using complicated medical jargon when counseling members won’t work. Taking a more personalized approach to addressing members’ unique social and health situations will likely prove more effective.
Speaking in helpful tones, answering questions patiently, utilizing visual aids, and remaining transparent will help gain trust and engage members.
Becoming a Whole Health Provider to the Community
When rural primary care physicians and specialists coordinate care, they create a whole health system where members thrive. Consider, for example, that eye exams can reveal signs of serious preexisting conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and cancer. Similarly, poor dental health has been linked to the progression of cardiovascular disease and other chronic inflammatory conditions.
Optometrists and oral health specialists can play larger roles in members’ preventive care by identifying early diagnostic markers. Rural healthcare providers can also incorporate eye and dental health information into the collection of SDOH data to help improve the quality of members’ health literacy.
The problems facing rural healthcare providers are undoubtedly complicated, but they’re not insurmountable. With greater insight into these factors, rural healthcare providers can develop whole health approaches to patient care. With whole health being the ultimate goal for rural providers, they can rely on these recommendations to overcome the challenges facing their patient populations. For more information, read the Strategies for Improving Rural Access to Primary Care Whitepaper (PDF).