Tenn. study suggests rural residents have as much access to care as anyone, if they’re insured and don’t mind the drive

A health-care study in Tennessee, which started with the premise that people in rural areas have less access to care than urban dwellers, ended with a rather surprising conclusion: They don’t. Not if they have health insurance. “When it comes to commercially insured patients, there’s little disparity in access to health care between residents of rural communities and urban areas in Tennessee,” said Dr. Steven L. Counter, president of the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Health Institute.

How can this be? The study found that almost half of rural residents pass up the hospitals closest to their homes to go to larger urban hospitals, even if the same services are available locally, writes Getahn Ward of The Tenneseean. “The conclusion we came to is that we’re living in a very mobile
society, and the distance is not necessarily a determinant factor in
whether people get care or not,” said Coulter.

Because the survey did not include consumers, it’s only a guess about why they chose to take the time and trouble to go to the big town, but experts says it’s a combination of services not being available or a perception that they aren’t, even if they are. This raises, again, age-old questions about the viability of rural hospitals, some of which often don’t have the money for capital-intensive technology and services. However, Coulter told the Tennessean that “a recent increase in alliances between rural hospitals and larger hospitals and urban health systems raises hopes that non-urban hospitals may be able to expand their menus of services.”

Such partnerships between non-profits and for-profit chains are becoming more common, reports Ward, and some say those efforts will change the perception of those in far-flung regions that great medicine is being practiced close-by. This could be especially important, said Wes Littrell, chief strategy officer and president of Nashville-based Saint Thomas Health, in the new world of health reform. “We expect that when you get more into population management that you need to take care of the patient closer to home in the lower-cost setting,” he said. (Read more)

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