Ed Garner is the only doctor serving an 11,000-square-mile area of western Texas near the town of Van Horn. Everyone from elderly inpatients and pregnant mothers to ER visitors has access to only one full-time physician. The result is a medical desert roughly the size of Maryland.
Van Horn’s plight underscores the lack of adequate healthcare common in certain rural areas of the U.S. That problem is only likely to worsen as doctors like the 68-year-old Garner age out of the profession and the population as a whole lives longer and longer.
According to United Nations statistics, the average life expectancy in the U.S. is currently 78.9. That is slightly higher than in 2010 (78.5) and significantly higher than in 2000 (76.8) and 1990 (75.2). As of 2017, the average 65-year-old man and woman could expect to live another 19 and 21.5 years, respectively. Twenty-five percent of those in that age cohort could even be expected to survive past the age of 90.
At the same time, it has been estimated that seniors require two to three times as many medical services as their younger counterparts. But who will provide them? According to a 2019 CNBC report, one-third of the doctors currently practicing will be 65 or older in the next decade. By 2032, there will be a shortage of between 46,900 and 121,900 physicians.
The problem is exacerbated in rural areas like the one Garner serves. Bisbee, Arizona is another town facing the same problem. The former copper-mining town features a 14-bed hospital but it is the only one for miles around. The situation in Bisbee is emblematic of the various factors that come into play in these areas: a declining population, a scarcity of hospitals, and few new doctors who want to practice there.
Specialists in Short Supply
Garner once diagnosed a trucker with two bulging disks in his back and told the man he needed the care of a specialist. Alas, the nearest one was in El Paso over two hours away.
According to data from the U.S. Commerce Department, 99% of the nation’s job and population growth between 2008 and 2017 came from metropolitan areas. As a result, hospitals in rural locales like Van Horn started feeling a financial pinch. It reached a point where 121 of them shut their doors between 2010 and the early weeks of 2020.
As a result, one in four Americans living in rural areas does not have access to sufficient healthcare. As physicians age and hospitals close in these places, it doesn’t appear that the cavalry is going to be riding to the rescue anytime soon. Just 1% of the students in their final year of medical school want to live in towns smaller than 10,000 people.
Telemedicine Can Help
Telemedicine can help ease the problem. Such technology is actually already in use in the hospital in Bisbee, giving far-flung residents access to the type of care they might not otherwise receive. But telemedicine has been found to be of great convenience to patients in busier settings too. The Allure Group, for example, uses a telemedicine platform known as Telehealth Solutions to treat residents across the greater New York area.
Telemedicine has even been integral in the battle against the coronavirus, allowing high-risk patients to seek medical attention without exposing themselves to the virus. It’s also been a godsend for clinicians who are finding their time, resources, and personal protective equipment in dangerously short supply.
Even so, telemedicine adoption has historically been slow. A study undertaken by the American Medical Association in 2016 showed that just 15.4% of physicians worked in a practice that used telemedicine platforms to interact with patients. Just 11.2% used the technology to interact with other doctors.
The arguments in favor of telemedicine are nonetheless compelling. Besides increased access and convenience, telemedicine can also save on rising healthcare costs. In 2017 for example, Americans spent 3.5 trillion in that space, or an average of nearly $11,000 per person. It has been estimated however, that as much as 25% of yearly healthcare outlays are wasted. Telemedicine can alleviate some of that waste by making doctor visits more efficient and eliminating unnecessary ER visits.
The technology is obviously not perfect. There is often no replacement for face-to-face interaction with a physician and telemedicine requires specialized physician training and equipment. But its implementation would help alleviate overworked doctors like Ed Garner, provide badly needed medical services in rural areas, and even lower healthcare costs that burden the entire system. The technological and regulatory hurdles to get there are large but surmountable, and the benefits are worth fighting for.