Bioethics for Breakfast: Health Care Deserts: What is Happening in Rural America?

Bioethics for Breakfast Seminars in Medicine, Law and Society

Dr. Steve Barnett and Dr. Kelly Hirko presented at the October 8th Bioethics for Breakfast session, offering perspectives and insight on the topic “Health Care Deserts: What is Happening in Rural America?”

While past Bioethics for Breakfast events were held in person, this year’s series is taking place virtually. The series is generously sponsored by Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman.

The session focused on the challenges faced by rural health care. Rural populations tend to be older with more chronic health conditions, poorer, and uninsured or underinsured. Before the pandemic, rural hospitals were already stretched thin. A record 18 hospitals closed in 2019. Since then, another 14 have closed in the first half of 2020. Experts say that more would have closed if it weren’t for grants and loan money approved by Congress through the Cares Act. But now many hospitals have already gone through that relief money and are unsure how they will pay back federal loans, even as they are bracing for a possible increase in coronavirus cases over the winter. Of the 1,300 small critical care hospitals across the United States, 859 took advantage of Medicare loans.

What policy options are available for meeting these challenges? We want health care delivered efficiently, but we also want equitable access to needed health care. To what extent is equitable access threatened by hospital closures and difficulty recruiting young physicians?

Dr. Steve Barnett offered a hospital perspective, pointing out that many perceptions about rural America don’t necessarily reflect the truth. The majority of rural hospitals are designated as critical access hospitals. Physicians have been attracted to rural environments at a much lower rate than urban environments – this is a long-standing global problem. Dr. Barnett shared that physicians in rural America have misconceptions about the type of support they will receive from peers, about compensation, quality of care, and practice coverage. On a practical level, they also want to know where the nearest shopping mall is. On the subject of medical education, Dr. Barnett put forth two questions: How can we expose all medical students to rural communities? How can we admit students to medical school who have an interest in returning to their rural community? Regarding workforce shortages Dr. Barnett shared that the value of advanced practice nurses, nurse practitioners, and certified registered nurse anesthetists is being recognized.

Dr. Kelly Hirko then provided a patient perspective and offered potential policy considerations. Social determinants of health and health behaviors (like tobacco use) impact the rural patient population. The COVID-19 pandemic has rapidly hastened telehealth across the world. Using telehealth can be a tool to overcome access barriers and improve quality of rural health care. Dr. Hirko stressed the importance of broadband internet availability: limited availability in rural regions limits the uptake of telehealth. Dr. Hirko shared that more than one-third of rural Americans lack internet access in the home, with lower use of smartphones, computers, and tablets compared to urban populations. For these reasons, telehealth could contribute to unequal access to healthcare. Policy considerations she shared were to ensure availability and viability of rural healthcare facilities, and to maintain the healthcare workforce. Finally, Dr. Hirko discussed the need for efforts to improve rural health on a population level by increasing access to basic preventive services in order to address the root causes of poor outcomes in rural settings.

During the discussion portion, attendees offered questions related to telehealth barriers. While internet service may be available in a particular location, the cost of the service can still be a barrier to access. Wearable tech devices such as the Apple Watch, as well as other peripherals, have helped providers to get creative about measurements such as heart rate and blood pressure during telehealth visits.

Related Resources

About the Speakers

Steve Barnett, DHA, CRNA, FACHE
Dr. Steve Barnett has served as a hospital chief operating officer and chief executive officer over the past 20 years. Currently Steve is serving as the President & CEO of McKenzie Health System. McKenzie Health System is a rural critical access hospital in Sandusky, Michigan and one of the founding members of the National Rural Accountable Care Organization. Steve has been a member of the Michigan Health and Hospital Association since 2001, served and chaired their Legislative Policy Panel and sits on the Small & Rural Hospital Council. Steve earned a Doctorate in Healthcare Administration from Central Michigan University.

Kelly Hirko, PhD, MPH
Dr. Kelly Hirko is an Epidemiologist, and community-based researcher at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine’s Traverse City campus. Her research focuses on cancer disparities and the role of lifestyle factors and social determinants in cancer prevention and control. She is particularly interested in using implementation science approaches to effectively incorporate evidence-based interventions into underserved rural settings. Dr. Hirko earned her PhD in Epidemiologic Sciences from the University of Michigan School of Public Health and completed a post-doctoral fellowship in Epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health before joining MSU in 2016.

About Bioethics for Breakfast:
In 2010, Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman invited the Center for Ethics to partner on a bioethics seminar series. The Center for Ethics and Hall Render invite guests from the health professions, religious and community organizations, political circles, and the academy to engage in lively discussions of topics spanning the worlds of bioethics, health law, business, and policy. For each event, the Center selects from a wide range of controversial issues and provides two presenters either from our own faculty or invited guests, who offer distinctive, and sometimes clashing, perspectives. Those brief presentations are followed by a moderated open discussion.

About Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences

Devoted to understanding and teaching the ethical, social and humanistic dimensions of illness and health care since 1977.
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