In Focus: Reimagining Rural Health Care
News of growing health disparities between rural and urban Americans prompted Transforming Care to focus on what’s happening in rural health care today. What we found was surprising: While there is much to worry about—including a greater risk of dying from preventable causes and worse access to care—there are also many signs of innovation, including bold experiments in organizing and financing care delivery, making services more accessible, and addressing the social determinants of poor health. This issue focuses on these bright spots—places where policymakers, providers, and community organizers are seeking to transform their health care systems to better serve residents.
Forty-six million Americans—some 15 percent of the U.S. population—live in rural areas of the country.1 Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show they are more likely to die from the five leading causes of death—heart disease, cancer, unintentional injuries, chronic lower respiratory disease, and stroke—than residents in urban regions and that a greater percentage of rural deaths may be preventable.2 Gains in life expectancy among urban and rural Americans, which once tracked fairly closely, began to diverge in the 1990s. By 2009, the life span of residents of large cities was 2.4 years longer; for poor and black rural residents, life expectancy was what urban rich and urban whites enjoyed four decades earlier.
“Rural America is a unique health care delivery environment,” says Alan Morgan, CEO of the National Rural Health Association, a nonpartisan organization with more than 21,000 members. “You have an elderly population, you have a sicker population, and you have a low-income population. Yet you have the fewest options available when it comes to seeking care. It’s a perfect storm.”
But for all these challenges, Morgan and other experts say some rural communities have begun to innovate, adopting new care delivery and payment models to address long-standing workforce shortages and population health needs.