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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Tom Gwin: Prioritize health options for rural Washington, especially during COVID-19

By Tom Gwin Washington State Grange

Nearly 1 in 5 Americans suffers from chronic pain. That’s roughly 50 million people who constantly battle some kind of physical pain – typically for more than six months. Now, pain is pain regardless of where you live. But if you live in the rural parts of the U.S., chances are there are fewer treatment options available for you.

Here in rural Washington, we are enriched with beauty and spacious landscapes that make our state such an exceptional place to live, work and play. Additionally, our powerhouse communities continue to advance Washington’s economic health through food, agriculture and a variety of other natural resources. But often, rural communities lack access to medical specialists and facilities due to geographic isolation or transportation difficulties – making it more challenging for residents to reach health care professionals. Inevitably, this hinders the ability for residents to work or perform daily tasks as they suffer through their chronic pain.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 24 percent of rural adults suffer from chronic pain, in comparison to 18 percent of those living in urban neighborhoods.

The National Rural Health Association found that there are fewer than 40 primary care physicians per 100,000 rural American residents. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately hit rural communities – resulting in increased poverty and the financial closure of rural hospitals, creating an even larger gap for residents to reach medical providers.

With increased social distancing, telehealth options have widened – but only those with adequate internet can access it. Numbers show that almost 40 percent of those living in rural areas lack access to adequate broadband. The inability to access high-speed internet creates additional barriers for residents to schedule virtual consultations, especially for those who require in-person treatment options.

As the president of the Washington State Grange, I’m honored to lead an organization rooted in agriculture and devoted to providing a strong voice for rural Washingtonians among our elected officials. I’m surrounded by excellent Grange members who relentlessly serve our cherished rural communities, particularly tackling issues such as legislative funding for basic education, agricultural productions, and creating accessible health care.

On a national level, the Grange is already taking significant steps forward to adopt initiatives that will drive us toward a strong recovery, including supporting research, developing pain relief therapies and hosting policy discussion on pain management. The Grange looks forward to continuing these conversations in 2021 to support our rural communities in Washington.

As we look ahead, one of our biggest concerns in rural Washington is the aftermath of COVID-19 for chronic pain sufferers, especially as it contributes to our country’s opioid epidemic. While our state is still grappling with the impacts of COVID-19, the Grange is committed to prioritizing our treasured rural communities in Washington and across our great nation.

An important first step is to continue educating ourselves and creating greater awareness on the topic.

We must place focus on these needs and ensure residents have increased access to trusted health care during these difficult times.

Tom Gwin is the president of the Washington State Grange.

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