Imagine driving an hour for a colonoscopy. Because of limited access to health care, that’s the harsh reality for many people living in rural communities, said Leslie Griffin, M.D., program director of family medicine residency at the University of Tennessee College of Medicine Chattanooga, during the “How to build a rural health pipeline” panel at AHCJ’s Rural Health Workshop 2022 in Chattanooga, Tenn.
When reporting on the state of rural medical facilities, there’s more to the story than the demand for health care services. Other factors influence the survival, closure, or changes to services offered by providers in more sparsely populated areas. The economic prosperity of those regions, for instance, appears to be tightly intertwined with the type and quality of care accessible to the people who live there — who tend to be in worse health than their urban peers.
That was among the potential story threads that emerged during a presentation at AHCJ’s Rural Health Journalism Workshop 2022 in Chattanooga earlier this month. Stephanie Boynton, F.A.C.H.E., featured luncheon speaker and vice president and CEO of critical access hospitals for Erlanger Bledsoe Hospital and Erlanger Western Carolina Hospital, talked about the impact of Erlanger Health System’s acquisition of facilities in East Tennessee and Western North Carolina.
Finding and parsing rural health data, tracking COVID-19’s curve in rural regions, the promise and limitations of telemedicine for rural health consumers, and reopening rural hospitals were among the topics tackled at AHCJ’s Rural Health Workshop 2022. (Check out full panel recordings on the Rural Health Workshop 2022 landing page.)
During the first in-person Rural Health Workshop since 2019 in Denver, expert panelists also cited ongoing gaps in care for rural patients and shared innovations for filling some of those voids.
The one-day workshop was hosted by the University of Tennessee School of Medicine Chattanooga; the University of Tennessee Health Science Center College of Nursing; Cempa Community Care and Erlanger Health System. Sponsors were The Commonwealth Fund; the Helmsley Charitable Trust; and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Stories about health in far-flung, medically underserved places are fodder for journalists and essential to improving rural health care, said Rob Headrick, M.D., CHI Memorial Rees Skillern Cancer Institute’s chief of thoracic surgery.
“The challenge for us is how to combine your skills and mine … ” Headrick said during the panel “Bringing health care to the people: mobile screening and other routes to prevention.”
As millions of opioid settlement dollars flow into states, substance use disorder experts at AHCJ’s Rural Health Workshop 2022 said reporters should “follow the money” and hold officials and programs accountable for using that money to fund evidence-based programs.
“That’s what we didn’t see implemented and really borne out within the tobacco settlement,” said Sonia Canzater, J.D., M.P.H., associate director of the Hepatitis Policy Project at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, referring to the $246 billion major U.S. tobacco companies agreed to pay states in 1998 over 25 years as part of the Master Settlement Agreement.
Similar to that pact, pharmaceutical companies have agreed to pay roughly $26 billion to settle a barrage of lawsuits from states that allege those companies are partly to blame for the nation’s deadly opioid epidemic.
Brian Winbigler, Pharm.D., M.B.A., an assistant professor in the Department of Clinical Pharmacy and Translational Science at the University of Tennessee College of Pharmacy, said opioid settlement funds should go to evidence-based programs, such as those that facilitate medication-assisted treatment and harm-reduction programs.
Americans living in rural areas are less likely to use telehealth services than urban residents. The reasons are not unique to them: they may have concerns about giving private information over the internet or don’t know how to find their way around technology. But slow internet speed and reliability problems appear to most affect access to telehealth services in those communities.
That suggests that people in those parts of the United States may not be getting access to quality health care in part because “if you are getting spotty access, you’re not going to have a real consult,” Sinsi Hernández-Cancio, J.D, a vice president at the National Partnership for Women & Families. Hernández-Cancio said the demand for those telehealth services during the coronavirus pandemic underscored the need to upgrade older telecommunications infrastructure in less dense areas of the United States and exposed technological shortcomings in telehealth and user barriers to it.
The state of internet services infrastructure was among the equity measures that health care experts discussed in “The truth about telemedicine: promise and limitations,” a panel at Rural Health Workshop 2022 in Chattanooga, Tenn. The daylong event held on July 14, 2022, included sessions about finding trend data on rural areas and efforts to recruit people to the nursing profession to serve less populated areas of the country.