A UnitedHealth Group / Harris Interactive survey, of 1,000 doctors and 2,000 consumers, finds that rural Americans tend to be older, poorer and sicker than their urban counterparts. “They tend to be more reliant on programs such as Medicare and Medicaid and they have more chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease,” says Dr. Lew Sandy, senior vice president for clinical advancement at UnitedHealth Group.
In addition to its health issues, rural America already has a problem with access to care. “The resources available to care for rural Americans are really under significant strain now, and they’re going to be under more strain as [federal] health reform unfolds,” Dr. Sandy says. The study finds that by 2019, there could be an increase of nearly 8-million rural Americans enrolled in Medicaid and state health insurance exchanges. “Among the 300,000 primary care physicians in the US, only about 11% practice in the rural areas.”
Where will these patients turn for care? With no clear answer, Dr. Sandy says now is the time to get started on modernizing the rural health care system. That starts, he says, with recruiting and retaining rural physicians. Dr. Sandy also believes that advancements in telemedicine are ripe for revolutionizing rural health care. “With the advances in information technology that permit care being delivered over the Internet… we think these kinds of technologies can wipe out the barriers of time, space and distance that rural Americans face.”