Disparities in Health Care: How Rural Populations Can Be Served Better

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Clinical and technological advances have transformed the American health care industry, giving physicians, nurse practitioners and other caregivers the power to conduct more accurate screenings, deliver more effective treatments and offer better post-operative support. However, not all patients can take advantage of these improved services, leading to health care outcome disparities nationwide.

Individuals in rural areas often suffer more than their suburban and metropolitan counterparts due to lack of access to cutting-edge care. According to research from the Department of Health and Human Services Rural Health Information Hub, Americans are more likely to develop and succumb to ischemic heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The infant mortality rate is higher among rural children than those born in cities. Life expectancies for men and women decrease in isolated regions removed from metros, dropping by an astounding two years. In short, rural families are suffering and in need of long-term, targeted interventions to improve health care access and quality.

Numerous private and public organizations are attempting to come to their aid, developing actionable strategies centered on some of these novel solutions:


Advanced mobile technology has proven immensely beneficial to the medical community. Information technology firms have produced myriad products that facilitate never-before-seen tests and treatments. According to Becker’s Hospital Review, the most impactful connected health care device to come out of this development is the simple internet-enabled tablet. These fixtures, which are often associated with the larger internet of things, facilitate a new long-distance clinical methodology called telemedicine. In a telemedicine scenario, a family doctor or registered advanced practice nurse working in a rural community might leverage connected technology to collaborate with colleagues in metropolitan hospitals who have access to the latest technology and teams of well-trained specialists.

This innovative arrangement offers obvious benefits to rural patients, allowing them access to top-of-the-line services available in metropolitan hospitals. An estimated 61 percent of providers in the U.S. now offer telemedicine services, according to research from the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society. Are these programs helping patients? Recent studies suggest they are, Health Tech magazine reported. Overall, telemedicine is poised to gain traction in the health care industry — a boon for rural families struggling with poor care access and quality.

Cultural awareness

Ancillary variables often determine patient outcomes. In rural communities, a surprisingly weighty factor is culture, according to analysts at the Kaiser Family Foundation. Isolated rural populations often form collective customs and habits that directly affect their health. For instance, Alaskan Natives, American Indians, African-Americans and Hispanic individuals living in these regions are more likely to avoid seeking routine and emergency medical care than white residents due to both historical obstacles to health care access and other variables such as language. Others indulge long-standing negative personal habits that adversely affect their health. According to research from HHS, rural adults are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs, smoke cigarettes and lead sedentary lifestyles. These practices, along with the unhealthy eating habits associated with living in food deserts, may lead to the development of chronic health conditions.

Health care organizations, private and public, are attempting to address these extenuating circumstances via cultural outreach initiatives. In 2013, HHS rolled out new national standards for its existing Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services program, which gives providers tools to better connect with rural communities and offer improved care. Even so, some in the health care space believe these initiatives fall short, according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health. The researchers argued that rural health programs with cultural awareness-based operations at their center place too much focus on communications strategies rather than problem-solving methodologies aimed at uncovering the root cause of the damaging health behaviors practiced in rural communities.

Regardless, health care groups seem to be working to address the cultural variables that contribute to disparities seen in isolated regions.

Infant getting medical help

Rural Nursing

While telemedicine technology moves forward and increasingly effective culturally-oriented rural health programs take shape, clinics, hospitals and other organizations deploy more immediate assistance in the form of rural nursing professionals. According to The Rural Health Monitor, advanced practice nurses with more developed clinical skill sets are at the center of these efforts. Rural Health care professionals can see as many as 4,000 patients per year and, in some cases, are the sole care providers in their respective outposts.

Nurse practitioners, many of whom have navigated postgraduate educational tracks such as the online Master of Science in Nursing program at Bradley University, are likely to succeed in these challenging roles, as they have the clinical capabilities and legal practice authority to offer holistic care rural patients might usually receive from physicians. A vast majority of states have granted these individuals prescriptive power, along with other unique abilities that RNs are not afforded.

At the moment, advanced practice nurses are at the forefront of efforts to address disparities in rural health care, implementing stopgap measures while more sustainable solutions materialize. Individuals interested in making an impact in rural communities should consider the online Master of Science in Nursing program at Bradley University. Through these studies, registered nurses can gain the advanced skills and knowledge to care for rural patients in dire need of assistance.

Online MSN students at Bradley, ranked within the top 10 universities in the Midwest by U.S. News and World Report in 2017, can take advantage of courses addressing everything from nursing theory and evidence-based practice to health informatics and statistical procedures.

Connect with an enrollment advisor to learn more about this accredited online MSN program.


Recommended Readings

Telemedicine in FNP Practice

An Examination of Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care

Bradley University Graduate Nursing Programs