Population Health Poses Unique Challenges in Rural Areas

John Commins, October 28, 2015

Despite significant challenges, rural healthcare leaders are embracing population health as their future—not because it offers economic salvation (it doesn't), but because it makes perfect sense for their mission: to provide care for the community.

This article first appeared in the October 2015 issue of HealthLeaders magazine.

Todd C. Linden
Todd C. Linden

Population health management is being pursued by many healthcare leaders, but it's a hard strategy to manage when the population is small and spread out. That's the difficulty facing rural healthcare providers, who have long dealt with an older and sicker demographic, difficulty in finding physicians, and economic constraints, and are now pushed to the brink by healthcare reform.

Yet many rural healthcare leaders are embracing population health as their future—not because it offers economic salvation (it doesn't), but because it makes perfect sense for their mission: to provide care for the community.

Population health—like everything else in healthcare—is resource-intensive. Many of the requisites for population health are more easily found in urban areas, where there is more of everything: more primary care physicians and subspecialists, more money to spend on very expensive healthcare information technology, and greater economies of scale for purchasing and leveraging with vendors and payers.

Of course, an essential component in population health is ready access to a population. As obvious as that sounds, in large swaths of the United States that's not such an easy proposition.

Still, leading healthcare providers in nonurban and rural areas say they can make population health work for the people they serve—and for their organizations—despite the obstacles. Among the approaches: cooperation rather than competition among equals, clinical integration that emphasizes providers' strengths rather than weaknesses, local engagement with a community rather than local ownership of all the components of care, and a focus on primary care rather than specialty care.

The challenges facing rural America
About 60 million people—one-fifth of the U.S. population—live in rural America, a designation that covers 95% of the nation's landmass. For the most part, U.S. Census data show that the 2,000 or so rural and nonurban hospitals that serve this population treat a patient base that is generally older, sicker, and less affluent than their urban counterparts.

John Commins

John Commins is a senior editor at HealthLeaders Media.

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