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Bridging the Gap: Overcoming The Challenges of Rural Healthcare Access

In the medical sector, it’s well understood that there’s a gap between the capabilities of rural healthcare facilities when compared to their urban equivalents. From staffing shortages to reduced capacity and limited capability for complex procedures, understanding the challenges that are present within regional healthcare can be vital to tackling them proactively.

Programs such as Texas Tech University’s Health Science Center are going a long way to understanding these issues from a regional perspective, with a focus on expanding the delivery of healthcare across digital channels, such as FNP programs in Texas. This is just one part of the solution, however – let’s discover what other measures may be taken in healthcare to help bridge the gap between the accessibility of urban and rural healthcare services.

Looking Beyond Reactive Healthcare Treatment

Current healthcare systems often find themselves under immense pressure to deal with the challenges of chronic health conditions and existing illness burdens. For example, in some areas of rural Texas, it’s estimated that diabetes rates are as much as 17% higher than when compared to urban centers – which already have prevalence rates higher than the national average.

Treating illness reactively can often be expensive, time-consuming, and resource-intensive. This then reduces the amount of time that medical professionals may have to provide care for the community. As the prevalence of chronic conditions such as diabetes and obesity has increased, however, there’s been a change in mindset from medical professionals.

Medical care should not simply be about treating conditions after they arise – as a matter of fact, medical professionals have a role to play in proactive preventative measures such as mitigating the environments that cause chronic illnesses, as well as providing proactive testing for conditions that are known to have an impact on the community.

This shift to a proactive care model can be seen quite clearly in some of the ways illnesses are tested and treated. For example, in developed nations such as Australia, preventative measures for older patients such as bowel cancer screening have contributed to greater public awareness of the illness, as well as improved treatment and care outcomes for cases where cancer is identified early as a result of the test.

Investing in Enhanced Healthcare Delivery

Fortunately, many organizations have identified the benefits of implementing proactive health programs and are actively working to bring them to rural and remote communities. One such example is the Institute of Telehealth and Digital Innovation, supported by the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC).

This new program looks to apply four risk management principles of healthcare – providing:

  • Preventative treatment for those looking to risk manage health issues that have the risk of developing into more serious issues.
  • Precise support, providing accessible healthcare specifically for the enhancement of rural communities. This ensures that the right communities are supported by the programs.
  • Predictive measures provide a level of interactivity with digital technologies to predict what health issues may be of most significance to specific rural Texas communities in the future, and allocate resources accordingly. For example, this may be useful in times like a baby boom.
  • Participatory channels, to allow for rural Texans to be able to engage with these services, even if they’re not able to attend a clinic.

TTUHSC is one of many universities looking to use their extensive knowledge of Texas’ healthcare system to provide services to benefit the communities they serve – and their investments in enhanced healthcare delivery will undoubtedly form a vital component of providing preventative healthcare measures in the years to come.

The Benefits of Preventative Healthcare in Communities

While it’s recognized that investment into rural healthcare can go a long way towards increasing the quality of life of communities, the benefits are often less well documented. Some estimates dating from 2016 estimate that long-term economic productivity benefits could be as high as $3.7 trillion annually – approximately one-fifth of US GDP.

Incorporating an approach that has elements of proactive healthcare available to manage chronic illness could yield significant benefits to the hospital system. Informing patients about their options early can help them make changes, and highlight the impacts of precise, predictive, preventative, and participatory care in healthcare.

By facing the challenges of preventative healthcare today, Texas is looking to set structures in place that are able to prepare for future needs. The recent pandemic highlighted the need for proactive healthcare services to act as a potential buffer, particularly when resources are limited and hospitals are dealing with shortages.

Facing The Challenges of Tomorrow, Today

Documentation of the potential savings that are yielded as a result of implementing preventative health measures is not always clear-cut.  The reality is, that proactive healthcare programs have often been underpromoted and as a result, underutilized by communities. However, we can use what we know about the costs of chronic illness to make some broad estimates on the potential benefits of implementing preventative health care measures more widely.

Some reports estimate that the cost of managing chronic healthcare issues is as much as 75% of current annual healthcare spending – representing a significant cost burden on the existing healthcare system. However, while it’s unlikely that proactive healthcare would eliminate every case of chronic illness, even a minor reduction could have a significant effect on the ability of the healthcare sector to address other issues.

In one such case, reducing the prevalence of hypertension by just 5% could have a potential billion-dollar benefit to the healthcare sector nationally, with some estimates predicting as much as a $25 billion dollar benefit if only a small proportion of Americans were to receive preventative care and management of their condition. This highlights just how important it is to start work on addressing the challenges of tomorrow, today – and how much it can make a difference to communities, even at low levels.

The Future of Rural Healthcare is Bright

It may seem a little uncertain at times, but the reality is, with proper investment toward addressing rural healthcare access, a lot of work is being done to meet the complex healthcare needs of rural Texans in the months and years to come. 

It’s important to understand that healthcare need not simply be about reactive treatment and hospital environments – in fact, it can be much more than that, with preventative strategies playing a vital role in the treatment and care of individuals both today and in the future. While we don’t quite know what a rural Texas clinical suite may look like in ten years, there’s no doubt that with all the work being done to support the Texas medical sector, the future will be bright and (hopefully) healthy.

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