Medical deserts are inhabited areas more than 60 minutes away from properly-equipped hospitals. As more and more hospitals shut down, medical deserts are becoming more common. Most of the U.S. can reach trauma care in less than an hour, but almost 30 million people are stranded in a medical desert.
This has disastrous consequences. Medical emergencies like heart attacks and strokes require quick treatment. Time counts in these situations, with brain cells dying every minute that treatment is delayed.
According to the CDC, this distance is one large factor why the rate of accidental deaths is nearly 50% higher in rural areas—care is farther away.
Who is Most Affected by Medical Deserts?
Since 2010, about 80 rural hospitals have shut down, and almost 700 more are vulnerable. Current turmoil over healthcare legislation could exacerbate this process. As people move to urban areas and rural populations shrink, it's extremely difficult for rural hospitals to bring in enough revenue to stay afloat. There aren't enough patients, and many of those patients are poor or uninsured. This creates a serious problem. Rural areas don't generate enough money to keep hospitals afloat, but without hospitals, people are going to die.
After controlling for demographic and socioeconomic factors, Asians and certain groups of Hispanics have the highest availability of close primary care physicians. Whites are in the middle, and blacks have the lowest availability.
One causal factor is insurance rates: blacks are less likely to be insured or covered by Medicaid. That might make it financially difficult to maintain a practice in black neighborhoods because patients are less able to pay.
Tragically, both for rural and black populations, financial incentives aren't aligned with the greater good of patients. Doctors are less able to sustain their practices or hospitals, meaning that many go without care.
How to Fix Medical Deserts
There isn't an easy fix for medical deserts. It's not that physicians don't care about vulnerable populations. It's just harder to keep a hospital or practice afloat in areas with few patients and/or patients who can't pay for care.
To begin fixing this crisis, governments will need to work alongside communities to find a way to make ends meet for local healthcare. Some organizations are already working to solve the problem.
In the meantime, doctors with extra time might consider volunteering their expertise in neighborhoods which lack proper healthcare access. They can also work to spread awareness of this issue, causing more researchers and government officials to get involved. Until real solutions are found, the first step is starting the conversation.