More than 46 million Americans, or 15% of the U.S. population, live in rural areas, and rural Americans face health disparities compared with their urban counterparts. Rural communities experience significant health disparities characterized by geographic isolation, poverty, more risky behaviors, and limited access to specialty care, in turn leading to lower life expectancy. For example, residents in rural areas are less likely to have employer-provided health insurance, and more likely to live in a federally-designated Health Professional Shortage Area for mental and primary care providers.
People living in rural communities are at higher risk of dying from preventable illnesses like diabetes, respiratory diseases, and heart attack. The COVID‐19 public health crisis exacerbated disparities for rural communities and underscored the need for diverse community-centered approaches in health research and dedicated funding to rural service agencies and populations. In general, residents of rural areas in the United States tend to be older and sicker than their urban counterparts. Racial and ethnic minorities and communities with low-socioeconomic status are most susceptible to poor health outcomes in rural America.
Higher rates of poverty, limited access to healthcare, higher rates of cigarette smoking, obesity, fatal car crashes, drug overdoses, suicide, and higher blood pressure all contribute to worse health outcomes in rural America. Social isolation, economic challenges, and higher rates of risky behaviors in rural America add to the vulnerability of residents, predominantly children and seniors of color. There are significant challenges to the provision of adequate quality care in rural America, including aging health infrastructure, less influence on policy changes, and physical isolation from commercial and government services. These challenges highlight the need for additional attention and resources aimed at improving health in rural America.
Improving health outcomes in rural America will benefit the local, state, and national health and healthcare access. Working to improve access to high-quality and affordable health care is significant to rural America’s social, physical, and mental health. For instance, high-quality care in inpatient and outpatient settings will assist in protecting and improving health and reduce the likelihood of rural communities’ receiving inappropriate or inadequate treatment. Specifically, rural communities can benefit from promoting the need for physical activity and healthy eating to reduce obesity and diabetes, and encouraging safe driving and smoking cessation, the most prevalent factor for chronic lower respiratory disease.