David Wahlberg, the excellent health and medical reporter from the Wisconsin State Journal (my hometown newspaper), is doing a series on the challenges of providing health care to rural communities. His most recent piece focuses on Park Falls, Wis. (population: 2,300), which, he writes, illustrates the difficulties of "providing good, consistent health care in rural areas." From the article:
Its Flambeau Hospital, considered the most remote in the state, can't perform many surgeries. The demand for dental care is so great that a new clinic was booked for months before it even opened. Mental health care is also scarce. Even wellness is a struggle, with the only fitness center in all of Price County stuffed inside a smoky bowling alley and hotel in Park Falls.
"There is no 90-minute window here for heart attacks," said Dr. Scott Carpenter, the hospital's emergency room chief, referring to the widely accepted goal for getting patients to major hospitals for blockage-clearing angioplasty. "You can't get from here to anywhere in 90 minutes."
And the problem is not confined to this small Wisconsin town:
The fragile, fragmented care in rural settings is thought to be responsible for a startling mortality gap nationwide: The death rate, adjusted for age, dropped only slightly in rural America the past two decades while declining significantly in cities, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Previous decades saw identical decreases in rural and urban areas, as overall health care improved, suggesting rural areas are now losing ground.
It's a good, eye-opening read, as is Wahlberg's earlier piece on the shortage of doctors practicing in rural areas. (Among that article's sad statistics: according to a recent survey, only 5 percent of medical school graduates want to practice in rural areas.)