The pandemic laid bare the racial health disparities in the United States while at the same time shining a light on the urban-rural divide in American health care – something that has long plagued small towns.
Scores of hospitals serving rural areas have closed over the past decade, for a variety of reasons, including low patient volume, workforce shortages, budget cuts and a broader movement to outpatient care. The COVID-19 pandemic has also accelerated and exposed the inequities in quality of care between urban and rural parts of the country – from access issues to lower COVID-19 vaccination rates among rural seniors compared to their urban peers.
Yet rural health care issues have long presented opportunities for innovation. "Because of those challenges, rural has always been an innovation hub when it comes to health care delivery," Alan Morgan, chief executive officer of the National Rural Health Association, said during a recent webinar hosted by U.S. News & World Report called "Curbing the Crisis in Rural Healthcare: Solutions to Turn the Tide." Participants discussed how rural health systems are turning to community partnerships, technology and other strategic innovations to meet the needs of their patients.
Of course, all rural areas are not the same. "If you've seen one rural community, you've seen one rural community," Morgan said. Many do share common problems, however. For example, their populations tend to be older, sicker and earn lower incomes. The communities have geographic challenges as well, such as needing to deliver care over great distances and less reliable availability of broadband internet.
Morgan said those pressures have fostered numerous innovations in the past, such as an expansion of telemedicine. "Looking at rural communities, you really get a sense of where the country's going to be 10 to 20 years from now."