9OYS Investigates: Trends in rural healthcare access - Alabamas13.com WVTM-TV Birmingham, AL

9OYS Investigates: Trends in rural healthcare access

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WASHINGTON, N.C. - Lack of insurance, rising costs and scarcity of services are all challenges people living in rural communities face when it comes to healthcare.

This shrinking access to healthcare in our small towns across the East has reserved a spot in our 9 On Your Side newscasts in recent years.

From Bethel's 2012 fight against ECU to keep it's only health clinic open, to Belhaven’s more recent battle against Vidant Health to gain control of its only hospital – both scenarios highlight what can happen when a small town's access to healthcare is threatened.

"It affects the workforce, it affects children in schools, it can have far-reaching effects for the prosperity of the community and the growth of the community,” says Carol Kinnion, director of nursing at the Beaufort County Dept. of Public Health.

Rural healthcare experts with the Dept. of Health and Human Services say every community faces different challenges; but one thing rings true for all: a clinic or hospital must attract enough patients to remain financially viable.

"Healthcare operates on a business model, it can make it somewhat difficult for sustainability," says Chris Collins, deputy director at NC DHHS Office of Rural Health and Community Care.

Kinnion says if local services disappear, fewer people will get the treatment they need. It’s an issue further complicated by lack of insurance, limited transportation, and difficulties in recruiting and keeping good doctors in rural areas.

As for possible solutions, she stresses educating people to prevent sickness and disease is just as important as treating them.

"Prevention is the answer,” she says. “We'll never reduce healthcare costs, we'll never improve overall health if we wait until the crisis visit that requires a hospitalization for treatment."

Collins believes telemedicine, where doctors use video technology to evaluate patients from a distance, could soon transform rural access to specialty healthcare like psychiatry.

“You could have a psychiatrist who's in a more urban setting but serves rural communities and so then you get enough volume to help make that service viable,” she says.

Collins says recent studies show state universities could also help improve healthcare access.

"I definitely see the academic centers, particularly here in North Carolina, really trying to recruit people from rural communities who will return to rural communities with a heavy focus on primary care,” she says.

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