As we move into 2017, health care access and costs will continue to be a major topic for state and national leaders.
Few would argue that the health of our nation fares better than that of our neighbors, with people living in the United States being three times more likely to have diabetes than people living in European countries, and twice as obese.
As we look closer to home, it may not shock you to know that 30 Georgia counties have a lower life expectancy than developing nations such as El Salvador and Thailand – or that we rank 48th in the nation for the number of uninsured.
The question is: Why? To answer that, we need to take a closer look at access to health care services in Georgia. According to the latest census data, approximately 43 percent of Georgians live in rural communities, where health care services are minimal and sometimes nonexistent.
Since 2001, at least eight of the state’s rural hospitals have closed their doors, and several others are in financial straits, leaving approximately 1.8 million Georgians at a greater risk of negative health and economic hardship because of the loss of local acute-care services.
As health technologies advance, so too do infrastructure costs, and since most rural hospitals are not members of cooperatives with large-scale purchasing power, these administrative costs are too expensive for many rural hospitals to support.
In addition, clinical services typically offered in rural community hospitals are not reimbursed at the same rate as services and procedures at larger facilities. To make matters worse, rural hospitals have a harder time recruiting physicians and other clinical providers, leaving many residents — a large majority of whom are uninsured, older and have increasingly severe health conditions — to seek other health care options.
What does this mean for those who live in Georgia’s urban communities? Why should we care?
Some would argue that higher mortality rates because of heart disease, stroke and cancer would be enough to convince us we’ve got a statewide problem that requires a statewide solution. But that’s only half the story.
Rural hospitals aren’t just health resources for their communities, but economic engines, with many jobs either directly employed or supported by the local hospital.
As one of the nation’s most populous and fastest-growing states, lower tax revenues as a result of rural hospital closures could devastate the state’s economy. A recent Georgia Hospital Association report estimated that Georgia’s hospitals contributed $43.6 billion to the state’s economy and provided more than 100,000 full- and part-time jobs and indirectly created 364,000 full-time jobs.
We, as a people and as a community, have a responsibility to provide a solution that can sustain our state’s rural hospitals.
I convened a task force last year to examine the issue in detail and provide recommendations for how we, as the state’s academic medical center with Georgia’s only public medical school, can lead the charge. As a result, a team of our top experts in health care, government relations and information technology have released recommendations that include the establishment of a Center for Rural Health Support and Study at Augusta University, expanded educational and residency programming, and policy changes in areas such as telemedicine.
But we cannot do it alone. We will need the help of our community and state to make these recommendations a reality.
In this season of resolution, I ask you to support us as we work to find an answer to our state’s rural health care and economic challenges.
You can become more familiar with the recommendations we’ve presented by reading the full report online, at https://tinyurl.com/RuralHospitals.
(The writer was named president of Augusta University in July 2015.)