Liz Sheffield

Rural Health Care Access and Keeping Your Employees Healthy

For employers with employees in rural areas, access to care is a growing concern. Among a long list of barriers to rural health care, one is at the forefront: The realities of living in a remote area, where distances can and do impede people from receiving the care they need in a timely fashion.

By understanding the obstacles rural employees face, offering innovative ways to access care and communicating effectively, rural employers can enhance their staff’s quality of care.

What Are the Main Obstacles to Access to Health Care in Rural Areas?

While the majority of Americans (80.7 percent) live in urban areas, statistics compiled by the National Rural Health Association indicate that the smaller rural population (19.3 percent) faces serious challenges in accessing health care. These include:

  • Having only 13.1 physicians per 10,000 people in rural areas (compared to 31.2 in urban areas)
  • Having only 30 specialists per 100,000 people in rural areas (compared to 263 in urban areas)
  • The fact that 11 percent of adolescents smoke (compared to 5 percent in urban areas)

The result is that 19.5 percent of adults in rural areas describe their health status as fair or poor, compared to 15.6 percent in urban areas. A shortage of local providers means that employees may not be able to respond to health issues or seek care as quickly as they should, setting the stage for developments and complications that are harder — and more expensive — to resolve. With these stark realities in mind, providers are seeking to innovate ways to address the needs of employees and patients living in rural areas.

How Can People in Rural Areas Gain Better Access to Health Care?

Providers are addressing the rural health crisis by implementing telemedicine and mobile methods to support and augment in-person care. New technology can help facilitate in-home monitoring and remote consultations with specialists located in urban areas.

Another struggle is the low number of hospitals in rural areas, as well as restrictions on what specialist services can be provided at rural hospitals before transfer to a larger facility is required. Providers are looking for new ways that technology can level the playing field for rural hospitals. “It is difficult for many rural communities to staff their own diagnosticians, but mobile imaging centers and lab specimen kiosks that can take X-rays and perform collections can work in conjunction with remote analysis labs in larger urban areas to bridge the gap,” according to Becker’s Health IT & CIO Report.

Implementing technological solutions isn’t just an option for providers. With the adoption of digital therapeutic methods, patients can take charge of their health using wrist-worn devices and similar methods of tracking key indicators. For the nearly one-fifth of rural adults who say they’re in fair or poor health, these devices can help monitor risks, improve overall health and reduce costs.

As you shop for new plan options to offer your employees, look out for these cutting-edge technologies. They’re more than just fads — they’re crucial improvements in access to care.

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How Should You Communicate to Your Employees in Rural Areas?

When discussing innovative care options and issues of health care access in general, be sure to understand your audience and provide information in a way that’s relevant to it.

“It is important to tailor messages to the communication channel being used,” notes the Rural Health Information Hub. “Further, using multiple communication and media strategies will ensure a broader reach. It is also important to ensure that the target population has access to the communication channels being used.”

As always, timely communication of health plan information is essential. But when communicating with your rural employees, don’t depend entirely on digital methods. While 63 percent of Americans in rural areas say they have a broadband internet connection at home, data from Pew Research indicates that adults in rural areas are less likely than their urban peers to use traditional computers, smartphones and tablets. For this audience, thorough and regular in-person meetings and detailed printouts may be your best bet for conveying important plan information.

At the end of the day, what’s true for rural employees is true of employees everywhere: The better equipped they are to take advantage of resources to manage their health, the better off they — and their employers — will be.

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