WXMI — The bitter paradox of rural healthcare is that in the places where it’s needed most, there is very little of it. It’s been that way for a long, long time.
“We’re really in a difficult time when it comes to access to care for rural communities,” said Alan Morgan, CEO of the National Rural Health Association. “In the last ten years alone we’ve seen 140 rural hospitals close across the United States.”
Since the beginning of 2021, just five rural hospitals have closed, compared to 19 that closed in 2020 and 18 in 2019. That represents thousands of hospital beds, evaporated from communities that are typically at a greater need than urban areas. Rural Americans tend to be older, sicker and lower-income than urban Americans. They suffer from higher rates of obesity, mental health issues, diabetes, cancer and opioid addiction.
“Most usually we’re talking communities of 5,000 to 10,000 people,” Morgan explained. “Rural communities across the U.S. have a higher percentage of seniors, and a higher percentage of individuals with multiple chronic health issues.”
A new partnership between Priority Health and Homeward, a mobile heath provider, might be a key solution to the problem of missing rural healthcare access. Homeward’s mobile units are capable of providing physicals and diagnostic tests on-the-go, bringing critical healthcare to residents right in their own hometowns. Clinicians with Homeward can even refer residents to specialists when further care is needed.
“This partnership supports Priority Health’s longstanding commitment to bring innovative, personalized solutions to our members, while advancing our efforts to shift from the historical fee-for-service model to true value-based care,” said Carrie Kincaid, senior vice president of market development at Priority Health. “Rather than requiring members to travel far distances to receive care, Homeward’s innovative approach brings care to the member in their home and at convenient locations within the flow of their daily lives.”
“With this partnership, Priority Health has established itself as the market leader in supporting the needs of individuals in rural Michigan,” said Dr. Jennifer Schneider, CEO of Homeward. “We applaud their commitment to value-based care and to supporting new approaches to tackle one of the most pressing issues in healthcare.”
A study from UNC – Chapel Hill shows that in 2006, Leelanau Memorial Health Center closed its doors, followed six years later by Cheboygan Memorial Hospital in 2012. But as federal COVID funding runs out, and staffing levels shrink at rural hospitals, more and more are at risk every year.
“We’re able to track the financial viability of all rural hospitals nationwide, and we have identified nearly 400 rural hospitals that are at risk of closing year to year-and-a-half,” said Morgan.
Morgan added that innovative approaches and partnerships, like the one between Homeward and Priority, as well as new innovations in telehealth, might be the beginning of a fix to the issue, one that’s of dire importance.
“Rural is not a small version of urban. It really is a unique healthcare delivery environment,” he said. “The thing that’s unique about rural health and rural communities is their ability to collaborate. They’re forced to innovate to ensure that they can continue to provide access to care.”