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Rural Hospital Travel Times Increase, Hamper Patient Care Access

Rural dwellers face 17-minute travel times to the nearest hospital, calling into question convenient patient care access.

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Source: Thinkstock

By Sara Heath

- Individuals living in rural areas face nearly double the travel that those living in urban areas experience, according to an analysis from the Pew Research Center. Those long travel distances can cause considerable patient care access issues, the report authors said.

On average, patients living in rural areas face a 17-minute trek to the nearest hospital. Those living in urban areas must travel an average of 10 minutes and suburban residents live 12 minutes from the nearest hospital.

Pew determined those numbers by looking at the average distance, in miles, patients living in each community type may face. The Center also took into account traffic patterns in each area.

On average, those living in urban regions live 4.4 miles away from the nearest hospital. Those in suburban communities live 5.6 miles away and those in rural areas live 10.5 miles from the nearest hospital.

This has resulted in significant patient care access barriers, the analysis added. A May 2018 survey also conducted by Pew confirmed that 23 percent of rural dwellers say access to good doctors at a reasonable distance is a challenge in their communities. Eighteen percent of those living in urban areas and 12 percent in suburban towns said the same.

Overall, 18 percent of patients live more than 10 miles from their nearest hospital, the report added. Twenty-four percent live between five and 10 miles away from the nearest hospital, while 58 percent of patients live less than five miles away.

Although a majority of patients face little to no issue with regards to travel time to hospitals, nearly one in five patients being over 10 miles from a hospital is still too high a proportion, most experts agree. Patients living in rural regions tend to experience other adverse social determinants of health and higher rates of chronic illness, making it incumbent upon the healthcare industry to close care access gaps.

What’s more, patients living in rural areas are seeing a higher prevalence of hospital closures across the country, the Pew researchers added. Between 2013 and 2017, 64 rural hospitals closed, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO). That is more than twice the number of hospital closures in urban areas during the same period.

Pew did note that these scores represent average travel times. Although they concluded that rural dwellers live an average of 10 miles, or 17 minutes, from the closest hospital, there is considerable variation within their community type.

For example, for the one-quarter of rural dwellers whose travel times are the longest, it takes 34 minutes to get to the closest acute care facility. For the remaining three-quarters, it takes about six minutes.

Discrepancies are smaller in urban and suburban areas. For example, those urban dwellers with the longest travel times see 19-minute travel times, compared to five minutes for the three-quarters with the shortest travel distances.

“In other words, while some parts of rural America are especially far from hospital access, other rural Americans have similar travel times to the closest hospital as their urban counterparts,” the report authors said.

There are also differences in travel time according to geographic region, the report continued, although those differences vary according to where more or less rural and urban areas are.

For example, the West North Central area, which represents numerous rural communities, faces the longest average travel times at 15.8 minutes. Conversely, the Middle Atlantic and Pacific areas, which are both home to a number of urban and suburban areas, see average travel times of a little over 11 minutes.

The researchers also reported which types of facilities patients live closest to. Sixty-five percent of Americans live closest to a non-profit hospital. Rural patients are most likely to live near a government-run hospital.

These hospitals tend to be set up by the government to bolster patient care access and healthcare for patients in vulnerable populations. Government-run hospitals tend to offer different services than non-profit or other private hospitals, the report authors noted.

These travel distance issues come as the nation faces an impending provider shortage. More hospital closures and other care access issues will be on the horizon as the US anticipates a primary care shortage of between 42,600 and 121,300 come 2030, according to a 2018 analysis from the Academy of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).

Going forward, healthcare industry experts may consider different approaches for closing care access gaps. As patients living in rural regions live with an array of adverse health factors, it will be essential that they have convenient access to quality healthcare.

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