The divide between the health outcomes of urban and rural communities is stark. A 2017 study by the National Rural Health Association found that people living in rural areas tend to be sicker, poorer and older than their urban counterparts. They experience higher rates of chronic disease, disability and premature death. These rural areas also tend to suffer disproportionately from inadequate access to health care.
Access and quality are only part of the issue. The doctors who serve our rural communities are getting older and we are not replenishing the ranks quickly enough to meet the needs of people across the U.S. At least half of rural-area physicians are now more than 50 years old. Younger physicians are rapidly leaving rural communities to practice in urban areas where they can often command higher compensation, build specialty practices or have greater access to resources.
These deficits are a constant reminder of the inequity in Washington state’s health care system. It is time to invest in sustainable evidence-based solutions that support our rural communities.
Tackling these complex issues requires partnership between business, the nonprofit sector, academia and policymakers. Addressing health equity is a multidisciplinary effort that needs the best thinking of leaders and institutions throughout our state to make meaningful progress. Premera recently joined Washington State University and Empire Health Foundation to announce a $10.5 million investment to improve health care access and expand rural medical residency programs.
The grant to Washington State University Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine will help address the issue of physician shortage by funding the development of new graduate medical education programs in rural eastern Washington. About 70 percent of medical students remain in the state where they complete both their medical education and their residency. These programs ensure more students who are passionate about serving rural communities in Washington will remain here to serve communities where they are needed most.
To address infrastructure, health equity and quality challenges, Premera’s investment in Empire Health Foundation will help fund capital improvement to equipment and materials for communities in need. For example, a hospital in Ferry County lacks air filters to keep residents safe during wildfire season. Upgrades to cardiac devices for ambulances in Lincoln County are needed, so residents have immediate access to state-of-the-art, life-saving equipment. And the Kalispel Tribe needs a new optometry fundus camera to help prevent diabetic retinopathy and loss of eyesight in their rural elders.
Empire Health Foundation will use this investment to strengthen and expand its work with other nonprofit organizations and civic leaders to provide greater access and higher quality care in rural areas throughout Washington state.
Across our state, more than 14 percent of the population lives in rural areas. These communities, together more than one million people, often have difficulties seeing clinical staff due to above-average patient loads. Rural health care facilities, particularly hospitals, struggle to invest in aging infrastructure or important technologies that coordinate care with neighboring communities.
These investments are only the beginning of an ongoing collaboration and partnership among our organizations. We call on others to join us in addressing the issue of health equity in our underserved rural communities. Policymakers, educational institutions and nonprofit organizations working together is important, and we also believe that business and industry leaders must take a more active role in meeting this challenge through cross-sector partnerships.
Together, we can understand and address the critical health needs of our rural communities.
Jeff Roe is CEO and president of Premera Blue Cross. Dr. John Tomkowiak is a Founding Dean of the Washington State University Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine. Antony Chiang is president of Empire Health Foundation.
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