Most Americans live in cities and their surrounding metropolitan areas and suburbs. Around 1 in 5 Americans live in the “country” – farms as well as small towns.
When country folks get really sick or injured, they typically have to make the long trip to a city medical center to get expert help. Though 20% of America’s population is rural, only 9% of its doctors are.
A recent study suggests that special programs in medical school to train students for country caregiving could boost the numbers of doctors available.
Another solution is “telehealth,” a topic WhatIf blogged about in March. The term refers to using current technology and internet connections to allow doctor to treat patients that are elsewhere. It is being used to monitor the chronically ill as well as those whose geography prevents them from accessing needed care.
While it sounds pricey, telehealth – particularly in the realm of keeping the chronically ill healthier and thus out of hospitals and doctors’ offices – is being shown to actually save costs. It will certainly save on gas money and missed work.
Double Whammy: Rural America’s health care is lagging AND those in rural areas also face a “digital divide” – a lack of fast and affordable internet access and the information that comes with it.
- Internet companies have not found it profitable to install and service the technology in areas that don’t have enough potential subscribers to cover their costs.
- Similarly, hospitals, cancer clinics, and other specialists need a large pool of potential patients in order to stay profitable.
- If an internet provider does come to a rural area, the lack of competition means that it can charge high prices.
In late 2007, the Federal Government began work on killing two birds with one stone, so to speak, by trying to solve the health care divide by solving a part of the digital divide at the same time. The Federal Communications Commission kicked-off a 3-year pilot program with $417 million in grants to help countryside clinics and practices set up high-speed Internet networks. This will connect them with more sophisticated medical resources in urban areas.
Hopefully some day soon, your small town doctor will be able to help you get a clear diagnosis for those troubling symptoms by emailing your scans and records. Or you could have your diabetes or heart disease monitored at home by a far-away expert online.
This new government funding may not address, however, whether rural Americans will be able to access the internet from their homes. Individual internet use is itself a growing part of U.S. health care. In an upcoming blog post, we’ll explain how.
For a good survey of current telehealth issues, go here.