Out in the rural areas of America, the nearest neighbor may be miles away. On farms and secluded homesteads, residents face challenges when it comes to getting the care that they need. Traveling long distances may be difficult in an emergency, and the lack of specialized care can mean that some conditions can go undiagnosed and untreated for a dangerously long time.
To compound these issues, rural hospitals are closing, a symptom of declining populations in remote areas. This puts remaining facilities in a bind; it can be difficult to raise enough revenue to stay afloat in the country. Yet, patients there are often older and often more in need of care. Care centers have started to adapt to these conditions thanks to modern telehealth services.
On paper, these facilities seem woefully under-equipped to handle patients, particularly those that are a longer drive away. Rural medical centers often only contain one full time doctor, and lack the space to house more than a few patients at a time. However, telehealth is providing patients with the means to obtain prescriptions from a distance and get the care that they need at a moment’s notice.
With pressures growing as more and more medical facilities close, companies have stepped up their technology usage to compensate. Wearables have a part of play in this new approach to patient care, giving professionals the means to easily track patient biometrics from a distance without them having to travel to visit a specialist. For aging patients that need more checkups than most, having the means to monitor their own health may save both time and money when it comes to scheduling trips to facilities.
Telemedicine services can also provide patients with additional education that they might not receive otherwise. Keeping patients medically literate is important, but is lost in rural areas where families may not have regular access to a medical professional. The internet helps with this, but the ability to quickly connect face to face with a professional can prevent nascent problems from turning into catastrophes.
Another problem facing rural communities is a lack of specialty doctors. In many small towns, EMT services are provided by local volunteers on top of their other jobs. This creates a safety net that also helps facilitate patient relations in the community, but fails to address the need for expanded service offerings. As of now, there’s no perfect solution. A roster of rotating specialists in some areas has allowed for swifter care, but still lacks the adaptability of a proper hospital staff. However, some universities and other medical institutions are incentivizing service in rural communities by offering free tuition or other benefits.
Still, it’s unlikely that medical professionals will flock to rural areas; with an average of 13 per 10,000 people, there’s a lot that needs to be addressed before this problem can be considered solved. Medical centers in these areas have been forced to innovate fast or fail, bound by budgetary constraints and lack of infrastructure. This has proven difficult, particularly when many rural medical facilities are in dire need of new technology.
Beyond the gadgets that have aided in patient monitoring, education programs between physicians has allowed for at least a cursory understanding of the ailments that might be encountered in rural hospitals. Additionally, hospitals in remote areas have endeavored to improve by offering services such as oncology, while still deferring to larger facilities that may provide better care. Dealing with underserved communities can be a drain on hospital resources, especially when treating an increasingly elderly population that may need more intensive care. There’s no sense in trying to accomplish everything with one facility, but expanded services can save lives of area residents.
Regardless of what happens in medicine, America’s rural communities are not going away. Though an exodus to cities has occurred over the last eight years, residents often prefer their way of life, and the image of idyllic small-town America has become romanticized over the years. It is my sincere hope that the health services industry will continue to adopt technology that allows them to better communicate and serve citizens of these communities.