Earlier this month, rural health leaders convened in Phoenix for the annual American Hospital Association’s Rural Health Care Leadership. Many AzHHA members were in attendance and benefited from the opportunity to network with peers and hear the latest regarding health and healthcare in rural communities.
This conference content included a report outlining the persistent, recent and emerging challenges threatening rural hospitals’ ability to continue to provide access to healthcare services in their communities, including the shortage of primary care physicians. According to Health and Human Services data cited in the report, while almost 20 percent of the U.S. population lives in rural areas (which are often older, sicker and poorer than the national average), less than 10 percent of U.S. physicians practice in these communities. Arizona meets just 41 percent of its primary care physician need. While all counties in Arizona have shortages, the issues is even worse in rural areas.
The health of the people in the communities, the ability for patients to access the right care at the right time, and the health of the local economy are all impacted by the health of the local hospital and healthcare system. Some rural healthcare facilities are trying to find a solution to the physician shortage in their community on their own. A creative approach at Kingman Regional Medical Center is just one example, but too often hospitals have to shutter their doors, and closures hit rural communities particularly hard.
Our goals include recruiting and retaining physicians for rural communities to help maintain the health of those communities. AzHHA is continuously searching for ways to address this specific workforce recruitment and retention issue, such as the physician credentialing bill we championed last year. We are also keeping a close eye on issues that are making news at the national level. Issues such as access to mental health services or the opioid epidemic don’t bring with them the same resources in a rural community as they do in metropolitan communities.
During the current legislative session, AzHHA is championing two bills that would further our goals: Telemedicine (SB1089) and Graduate Medical Education (SB1354). Last week, the Arizona Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously passed SB1354 which will help eliminate the physician shortage affecting the state, especially in rural and underserved communities. Patients should not have to move to access the medical care that they need.
Beyond efforts like SB1089 and SB1354, what else is crucial to improve access to healthcare in our rural communities? Share your thoughts below. Discussing innovative ways to move forward in making Arizona the healthiest state in the nation is the first step to getting there!