Improving Patient Access to Healthcare in Rural Areas

waiting-room-1486946-300x239Providing access to high quality services to patients in rural areas is an ongoing challenge in the U.S.  Throughout our country, a large percentage of citizens living in rural areas are less healthy than their peers in urban areas, as rural citizens lack access to healthcare providers in their small communities as well as personal financial resources and transportation options that would allow them to travel to larger cities where top-quality or specialty medical services are offered.

Georgia-based Healthcare Lawyers

According to Georgia’s State Office of Rural Health, citizens in rural Georgia are less healthy than those living in urban areas, are more likely to be uninsured or underinsured, and are more likely than Georgians in urban areas to suffer from heart disease, obesity, diabetes and cancer.

Many approaches have been considered and implemented by federal and state government leaders and healthcare industry experts to increase access to rural healthcare.  These include expansion by some states of access to the Medicaid program, offering access to physician appointments remotely via telemedicine, increasing the number of non-physician care providers such as nurse practitioners and physician assistants employed in rural hospitals and other healthcare facilities, and expansion of medical and other health-related educational and training programs to place providers in rural areas.

The Federal Communications Commission recently announced its investment in a 3-year $100 million pilot program to support telehealth and remote patient-monitoring services, called “Connected Care.”  The program would offer funding to defray the costs to service providers in establishing broadband telehealth access to connect healthcare providers with patients in rural areas. In an article explaining the program, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr said that telehealth and the virtual treatment visits they can offer patients provide “life-changing care” to low-income patients in rural areas who are unable to travel to receive care.

In Georgia, the Center for Rural Health, a department of the Georgia Hospital Association, represents the interests of about 74 member hospitals in Georgia:  acute care or critical access hospitals that have either a daily inpatient census of 75 or fewer patients in a county with a population of 75,000 or fewer people, or designated critical access hospitals.  The center’s mission is to assist rural hospitals in promoting accessibility to high-quality and efficient healthcare and to act as a central agency for the study, discussion and sharing of information to address problems of rural hospitals.   The Center for Rural Health provides information to assist Georgia’s rural hospitals in obtaining certain tax credit resources facilitated by the Georgia legislature in 2016 to allow for facilities and infrastructure improvements and better access to care, so that rural hospitals can keep their doors open to patients in their communities.

Other approaches to improve rural healthcare programs and patient access to care in Georgia have been developed by its medical schools.  For example, Augusta University’s Medical College of Georgia has developed a new curriculum designed to increase the number of primary care physicians in rural areas:  the 3+ Program. This program when fully developed will allow 50 medical students per class to finish medical school in three years, then go directly into a residency program in family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics/gynecology or general surgery in Georgia and then commit to six years of service in underserved areas of the state.  If they do so, their tuition to medical school would either be free or their student loans would be forgiven.

MCG also has a long-time rural residency program in family medicine in certain rural cities with declining numbers of primary care physicians.

In 2019, Mercer University School of Medicine established the Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center with funds specially dedicated by Georgia lawmakers to serve the needs of rural Georgians by educating physicians dedicated to serve that patient population.  The university has identified several areas of targeted study and improvement to address the healthcare needs of rural Georgians, including maternal and women’s health, child and adolescent health, strategic healthcare availability and access, and systems of rural community-based care.

Our Georgia and South Carolina healthcare law firm provides advice and counsel to rural healthcare providers and business leaders in understanding legal, compliance and business issues to assist them in providing high-quality access to care for their patient populations. If you have questions about this post, contact us at (404) 685-1662 (Atlanta) or (706) 722-7886 (Augusta), or by email, info@hamillittle.com. You may learn more about our law firm by visiting www.hamillittle.com.

 ** Disclaimer: Thoughts shared here do not constitute legal advice. Please consult with an attorney to discuss your legal issue.