UHG Offers Solutions to Rural Health Care Challenges

The Minnetonka-based health insurer points out that rural areas face more challenges in receiving high-quality health care, but it says that increased use of technology and other solutions could help better serve less-populated areas.

A new report from UnitedHealth Group (UHG) states that people from rural areas in Minnesota and throughout the country experience more chronic health conditions and face greater obstacles in accessing high-quality care-but a new approach to care could benefit rural communities.

According to UHG's report, titled “Modernizing Rural Health Care: Coverage, Quality, and Innovation,” recent health reform will boost the need for innovative health care models. UHG said that increased adoption of technology and broadband access that could bolster “telemedicine” solutions could play a significant role in serving rural communities.

Among the challenges being faced by rural areas: Roughly 5 million rural residents may join Medicaid and other insurance plans by 2019-representing a larger segment of the population than people from urban areas, UHG said.

UHG also points out that coverage should not be equated with access to high-quality care; in fact, more than half of rural primary care doctors who were surveyed indicated that the patients they refer to specialty care must travel an average of 60 miles to receive it. And to compound the problem, almost half of rural primary care physicians said that they expect a primary care shortage over the next few years, compared with 37 percent of urban primary care doctors.

Also, rural consumers and rural primary care physicians rate the quality of local care lower than those in urban or suburban areas, UHG said.

UHG's suggested solutions include expanding rural broadband connectivity to broaden adoption of telemedicine services; reducing regulatory barriers surrounding telemedicine technologies; adding new incentives and reimbursement models for rural primary care physicians; broader roles for rural nurse practitioners and physicians assistants amid a shortage of doctors; greater provider collaboration across rural areas and with urban health care systems; and new models involving mobile health clinics; among other initiatives.

“The next few years will be times of considerable stress on rural health care, but also times of great opportunity, since across the country there are already impressive examples of high-quality care, tailored to the distinctive needs of the local community,” Simon Stevens, UHG executive vice president and chairman of the UnitedHealth Center for Health Reform and Modernization, said in a statement. “The challenge for all involved in rural America now is to build on that track record of innovation and self-reliance, so as to ensure that all Americans-wherever they live-can live their lives to the healthiest and fullest extent possible.”

The Star Tribune also reported on the new data from Minnetonka-based UHG. It points out that Minnesota is doing a good job of serving rural residents relative to other parts of the country. Jim Boulger, a psychologist and professor of family medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School's Duluth campus, told the Minneapolis newspaper that about 47 percent of doctors who have trained at the medical school in Duluth now practice in communities with fewer than 20,000 people.

Read more in the Star Tribune about UHG's report and its local implications here.