For those of us that are fortunate to live near hospitals and primary care clinics, that question of rural vs. urban care is unlikely to even cross our minds. But for those living in remote locations, lack of access is a common issue. Unfortunately, what many of us take for granted is another person’s struggle, especially if they are plagued with chronic conditions, such as asthma or diabetes. And in many cases, most folks in this situation often go without treatment.
The National Rural Health Association reports that while a quarter of the U.S. population lives in rural areas, only one-tenth of our nation’s physicians choose to practice in these areas. And while only a third of automobile crashes occur in rural locations, two-thirds of deaths attributed to those accidents occur on rural roads, indicating a shortage in acute trauma care.
These figures certainly give rise to the need for increased access to care within rural communities. Another factor that contributes to this issue is that Medicare reimburses rural hospitals at a lower rate than urban hospitals, resulting in fewer physicians choosing to practice in such locations. Over the last 25 years, nearly 500 hospitals have closed, many of which were located in rural communities.
Fortunately, this is the age of digital know-how. Technology is king, and health care is one of the leading industries taking advantage of such innovation and wisdom. General Electric (GE) is doing its part to improve women’s health in remote areas like Wyoming, where the average woman has to commute 70 miles just to receive a mammogram.
In 2014, the company started the GE healthymagination program, to expedite cancer innovation and improve cancer care to 10 million patients, over the next six years (until 2020). One of the program’s most influential aspects is the GE Mammovan, equipped with mammography technology to provide free mammograms to all women living in remote areas.
GE chose to pilot the program in Wyoming, which has the lowest number of citizens and lowest population density (after Alaska). Many of the women using the van cited it was their first time having ever received a mammogram, stating that travel time or insurance requirements had precluded them from being screened for breast cancer. GE’s website reports that because of Wyoming’s uneven population distribution, a third of women living in that state over age 40 never receive a mammogram.
Since nearly two years ago, the mobile unit has traveled throughout the state, setting up in locations where women can receive a mammogram within an hour, allowing them to avoid the hassles of taking off from work and/or driving long distances. In many ways, the van serves a dual purpose—by eliminating the barriers rural residents previously faced and improving access to preventative care. By detecting breast cancer as early as possible saves the health care industry billions and ultimately, saves lives.
While North Carolina isn’t as rural as Wyoming, you might be surprised to learn that 85 percent of our state’s counties are, in fact, considered to be rural. And with nearly 2 million people receiving Medicaid, access to care is certainly an issue of interest among health care workers and lawmakers. And while mobile units are pricey to create and maintain, the progress the GE Mammovan has made in Wyoming is a good example of how health information technology can work to address some of our most pressing issues that impede quality health for everyone.