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In medicine, rural health or rural medicine is the interdisciplinary study of health and health care delivery in rural environments. The concept of rural health incorporates many fields, including geography, midwifery, nursing, sociology, economics, and telehealth or telemedicine.
Research shows that the healthcare needs of individuals living in rural areas are different from those in urban areas, and rural areas often suffer from a lack of access to healthcare. These differences are the result of geographic, demographic, socioeconomic, workplace, and personal health factors. For example, many rural communities have a large proportion of elderly people and children. With relatively few people of working age (20–50 years of age), these communities have a high dependency ratio. People living in rural areas also have poorer socioeconomic conditions, less education, higher rates of tobacco and alcohol use, and higher mortality rates when compared to their urban counterparts. There are also high rates of poverty amongst rural dwellers in many parts of the world, and poverty is one of the biggest social determinants of health.
Many countries have made it a priority to increase funding for research on rural health. These efforts have led to the development of several research institutes with rural health mandates, including the Centre for Rural and Northern Health Research in Canada, Countryside Agency in the United Kingdom, the Institute of Rural Health in Australia, and the New Zealand Institute of Rural Health. These research efforts are designed to help identify the healthcare needs of rural communities and provide policy solutions to ensure those needs are met. The concept of incorporating the needs of rural communities into government services is sometimes referred to as rural proofing.
There is no international standard for defining rural areas, and standards may vary even within an individual country. The most commonly used methodologies fall into two main camps: population-based factors and geography-based factors. The methodologies used for identifying rural areas include population size, population density, distance from an urban centre, settlement patterns, labor market influences, and postal codes.
The reported number of individuals living in rural areas can vary greatly depending on which set of standards is applied. Canada’s rural population can be identified as anywhere from 22% to 38%, of the population. In the United States the variation is greater; between 17% and 63% of the population may be identified as living in rural areas. The lack of consensus makes it difficult to identify the number of individuals who are in need of rural healthcare services.
Studies show that in many parts of the world life expectancy rates are higher in urban areas than in rural areas. There is some evidence to suggest that the gap may be widening in these countries as economic conditions and health education has improved in urban areas.
In Canada, life expectancy in men ranged from 74 years in the most remote areas to 76.8 years in its urban centers. For women, life expectancy was also lowest in rural areas, with an average of 81.3 years. Those living in rural areas adjacent to urban centers also experience higher life expectancies (with men at 77.4 years and women at 81.5 years). Australian life expectancies ranged from 78 years in major cities to 72 years in remote locations. In China, the life expectancy of females is 73.59 years in urban areas and 72.46 in rural areas. Male life expectancy varies from 69.73 years in urban areas and 58.99 in rural areas.
However, there are countries such as the United Kingdom, where life expectancy in rural areas exceeds that of urban areas. Life expectancy there is two years greater for men and one-and-a-half years greater for women in rural areas when compared to urban areas. This may be due, in part, to smaller economic disparities in rural areas as well as an increasing number of well-educated and wealthy individuals moving to rural areas in retirement. This is a significant departure to the rural poverty found in many countries.
People in rural areas generally have less access to healthcare than their urban counterparts. Fewer medical practitioners, mental health programs and healthcare facilities in these areas often mean less preventative care and longer response times in emergencies. The lack of healthcare workers has resulted in unconventional ways of delivering healthcare to rural dwellers, including medical consultations by phone or internet as well as mobile preventative care and treatment programs. There have been increased efforts to attract health professionals to isolated locations, such as increasing the number of medical students from rural areas and improving financial incentives for rural practices.
Canadians living in rural areas and small towns have access to half as many physicians (1 per 1000 residents) as their urban counterparts. On average, these individuals have to travel five times the distance (an average of 10 km [6.2 mi])to access these services. They also have fewer specialized health care services such as dentists, dental surgeons, and social workers. One study found ambulance service was available in only 40% of the selected sites, blood and Urine testing services in one third of the sites, and only one of the 19 sites had neonatal services. Nursing service had reduced from 26.3% in 1998 to 21.1% in 2005.
The gap in services is due, in part, to the focus of funding on higher-population areas. In China only 10% of the rural population had medical insurance in 1993, compared with 50% of urban residents. In the 1990s, only 20% of the government's public health spending went to the rural health system, which served 70% of the Chinese population. In the United States, between 1990 and 2000, 228 rural hospitals closed, leading to a reduction of 8,228 hospital beds. In 2009, patients living in rural areas of the United States were transferred to other facilities for care at a rate three times higher than that of patients in large central metropolitan areas.
Rural areas, especially in Africa, have greater difficulties in recruiting and retaining qualified and skilled professionals in the healthcare field. In Sub-Saharan Africa, urban and more prosperous areas have disproportionately more of the countries’ skilled health care workers. For example, urban Zambia has 20 times more doctors and over five times more nurses and midwives than the rural areas. In Malawi, 87% of its population lives in rural areas, but 96.6% of doctors are found in urban health facilities. Burkina Faso has one midwife per 8,000 inhabitants in richer zones, and one per nearly 430,000 inhabitants in the poorest zone. In South Africa alone, half of their population lives in rural areas, but only 12% of doctors actually practice there. One solution has been to develop programs designed to train women to perform home-based health care for patients in Rural Africa. One such program is African Solutions to African Problems (ASAP).
Rural areas often have fewer job opportunities and higher unemployment rates than urban areas. The professions that are available are often physical in nature, including farming, forestry, fishing, manufacturing, and mining. These occupations are often accompanied by greater health and safety hazards due to the use of complex machinery, exposure to chemicals, working hours, noise pollution, harsher climates, and physical labor. Rural work forces thus report higher rates of life-threatening injuries.
Lifestyle and personal health choices also have an impact on the health and expected longevity of individuals in rural areas. Persons from rural areas report higher rates of smoking, exposure to second-hand smoke, and obesity than those in urban areas. Additionally, rural areas often have low rates of fruits and vegetable consumption even where farming is prevalent.
While homicide rates are lower in rural areas, death by injury, suicide and poisoning are significantly more prevalent. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare also reports higher rates of interpersonal violence in rural communities.
In many countries a lack of critical infrastructure and development in rural areas can negatively impact rural health. Insufficient wastewater treatment, lack of paved roads, and exposure to agricultural chemicals have been identified as additional environmental concerns for those living in rural locations. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports lower water quality and increased crowding of households as factors affecting disease control in rural and remote locations.
Since the mid-1980s, there has been increased attention on the discrepancies between healthcare outcomes between individuals in rural areas and those in urban areas. Since that time there has been increased funding by governments and non-governmental organizations to research rural health, provide needed medical services, and incorporate the needs of rural areas into governmental healthcare policy. Some countries have started rural proofing programs to ensure that the needs of rural communities, including rural health, are incorporated into national policies.
Research centers (such as the Center for Rural and Northern Health Research at Laurentian University, the Center for Rural Health at the University of North Dakota, and the RUPRI Center) and rural health advocacy groups (such as the National Rural Health Association, National Organization of State Offices of Rural Health, National Rural Health Alliance) have been developed in several nations to inform and combat rural health issues.
In Canada, many provinces have started to decentralize primary care and move towards a more regional approach. The [Local Health Integration Network] was established in Ontario in 2007 order to address the needs of the many Ontarians living in rural, northern, and remote areas. In China, a US $50 million pilot project was approved in 2008 to improve public health in rural areas. China is also planning to introduce a national health care system.
In the United States, the Health Resources and Services Administration funds the Rural Hospital Performance Improvement Project to improve the quality of care for hospitals with fewer than 200 beds. Eula Hall founded the Mud Creek Clinic in Grethel, Kentucky to provide free and reduced-priced healthcare to residents of Appalachia. In Indiana, St. Vincent Health implemented the Rural and Urban Access to Health to enhance access to care for under-served populations, including Hispanic migrant workers. As of December 2012, the program had facilitated more than 78,000 referrals to care and enabled the distribution of US $43.7 million worth of free or reduced-cost prescription drugs. Owing to the challenges of providing rural healthcare services worldwide, the non-profit group [Remote Area Medical] began as an effort to provide care in third-world nations but now provide services primarily in the US.
Telemedicine has been used to reduce health access disparities by providing training and delivering services to individuals in rural areas. In developing nations such as India, non-profit organizations often partner with corporate houses to execute rural telemedicine projects. One such example is the TeleDoc program carried out by the Jiva Institute of Faridabad, India which uses wireless technology to connect people in rural communities to needed medical services.
Access to mental health services have also been increased through the use of telemedicine. Telepsychiatry through video conferencing sessions allows individuals in remote areas to have one-on-one sessions with a mental health professional. In the United States, several programs have been established that use telemedicine to provide mental health services to rural patients. Between 2007 and 2012, the University of Virginia Health System implemented a videoconferencing project that allowed child psychiatry fellows to host approximately 12,000 sessions with children and adolescents living in rural parts of the state. In 2009, the South Carolina Department of Mental Health established a partnership with the University of South Carolina School of Medicine and the South Carolina Hospital Association to form a statewide telepsychiatry program that provides access to psychiatrists to treat patients with mental health issues who present at emergency departments in the network. Videoconferencing has also been used to diagnose child abuse in remote emergency departments and clinics.