Did you know that the health of a population is impacted by their race, ethnicity, income, education, geography, and access to healthcare? For example, the prevalence of heart disease, stroke, and related risk factors is higher among certain groups of people living in the U.S. One group that experiences significant cardiovascular health disparities is people who live in rural areas or other “healthcare deserts.”
What are Healthcare Deserts?
Healthcare deserts are areas that lack access to one or more types of healthcare. These deserts can be caused by several factors, including rural hospital closures, a lack of physicians, and various insurance-related issues.
Within healthcare deserts, patients often experience a lack of local access to specialty care. This forces patients to travel far distances and spend more time and money to get the care they need. This further exacerbates the inequalities they already face such as higher rates of poverty. In emergency situations, these long travel distances can be the difference between life and death
All of these factors contribute to healthcare disparities for people living in rural areas. According to the National Rural Health Association, “The rates of the five leading causes of death – heart disease, cancer, unintentional injuries, chronic respiratory disease, and stroke – are all higher among rural Americans.”
Disparities in Access to Cardiovascular Healthcare
Rural areas experience higher rates of traditional cardiovascular risk factors, including older populations, higher tobacco use, lower rates of physical activity, and higher rates of obesity.
Studies have shown that having a cardiologist involved in the treatment of cardiovascular disease reduces the likelihood of patient mortality versus relying solely on primary care providers. However, “cardiologists are less likely to establish a full‐time practice in rural areas, making access to specialty preventive and chronic care critically unavailable for many rural residents. As a result, patients often rely on care provided by their primary care physicians.
All of these factors combined result in significant cardiovascular health disparities. A 2017 study by the CDC showed that rural Americans experience a 40% higher prevalence of heart disease compared with those living in small metropolitan and urban areas. Rural residents also have “a 30% increased risk for stroke mortality compared with urban residents.”
The cause and effect of these situations is very clear, and action needs to be taken accordingly. It is inequitable that these populations are being overlooked and rid of the opportunity to live a long and healthy life. Solutions need to address preventive and emergency care in a way that supports rural residents, as well as the local hospitals that serve them.
Telemedicine as a Solution
One solution to these disparities is telemedicine. Telemedicine can increase local access to specialty services, as well as reduce the need for long-distance travel. It not only benefits patients but providers as well. An article published in 2020 by the American Heart Association points out that, “For many specialty areas, rural areas simply lack the volume of patients to support a clinical practice,” making telemedicine a durable solution.
Incorporating telemedicine services allows local hospitals to reduce staffing costs, as well as retain revenue as they’re able to treat patients locally instead of transferring them to another facility. According to the Rural Health Information Hub, “This expands rural patients’ access to specialty care and enables rural providers to engage and connect with specialty providers, allowing them to better serve their patients.”
Beam has high-level cardiologists on staff that are ready to collaborate with your primary care providers to co-manage complex heart failure, valvular disease, arrhythmia, CAD patients, and more. “Our cardiology service line offers a wide variety of clinical services, including econsults and teleconsultation,” said Dr. Gepner. “We also have a very robust procedural interpretation service line, where we partner with our clients to read and interpret echocardiograms, ECGs, stress tests, vascular studies, and much more.”
By partnering with Beam, local hospitals can retain patients, providing them with the care they need, when they need it, and at a cost that’s affordable.
In the present moment, significant disparities exist in access to cardiovascular care. Patients in rural communities and healthcare deserts experience disproportionate rates of heart disease and stroke mortality relative to their urban counterparts. They’re often unable to access specialty services like cardiology in their communities, making their only options to rely solely on their primary care provider or travel far distances to see a specialist.
At Beam Healthcare, we are committed to reducing these gaps and increasing access to cardiovascular care for everybody, regardless of their geographic location. “Heart disease is the number one killer in the US,” said Dr. Gepner. “So for me, it’s really important as a member of our healthcare team to do everything I can to prevent heart disease. Because even though it’s very common, it’s also very preventable.”
Beam is also committed to partnering with local hospitals in rural communities to provide specialty services to patients close to home. In these smaller communities, it can be difficult to hire and retain specialty healthcare providers. However, by partnering with Beam, hospitals can expand their specialty services, reduce staffing costs, reduce patient transfers, and ultimately better serve their local communities.
Learn more about how Beam’s tele-cardiology services can help tackle healthcare disparity and provide quality care for all.