People who live in remote areas encounter challenges when it comes to healthcare. These difficulties extend beyond economic factors, although money plays a significant role — along with a shortage of primary and specialty providers.
In answer to this problem, Keshee Dozier-Smith, CEO of Rural Health Medical Program, aims to provide desperately needed services to those often left behind.
The Problem of Access in Rural Communities
Multiple barriers exist to healthcare access in rural areas. Rural Health’s Medical Program operates across Alabama’s Black Belt, spanning Perry, Marengo, Dallas, Wilcox and Monroe Counties. This region once made up much of the state’s agricultural heartland, and it’s the birthplace of the modern civil rights movement.
Community members often struggle with extreme poverty. The median income in Monroe County, for example, is $26,036. Many of the residents lack medical coverage or rely on Medicaid. The dire economic situation impedes health outcomes.
On average, it costs more to buy nourishing foods that meet daily caloric needs than ultra-processed meals that are high in fat and sugar. This diet leads to an increase in obesity and related illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes.
Another issue facing rural care providers is the lack of uniformity in medical recordkeeping. While the industry has made tremendous strides in making information more accessible and standard across platforms, one size does not fit all when it comes to new technology. Implementing updated procedures requires behavioral and cultural changes on behalf of users. Staff members require ongoing training to maintain compliance, something they may have to travel miles to obtain.
Finally, there’s the issue of patient trust. In remote areas, patients who don’t know their primary care provider tend to react with skepticism toward suggested behavioral and lifestyle changes. This resistance to treatment can further complicate outcomes. It takes people like Dozier-Smith, who have deep ties to the area, to serve this population in the manner they deserve and react favorably to.
Why Rural Health Medical Program Is Different
Few medical providers take the time to talk to community members directly, let alone serve them a healthy meal. Dozier-Smith does things differently. In the four years since she took over as CEO of Rural Health, she’s opened three new locations. She’s about to launch a mobile clinic to further extend services to those in outlying regions, and who lack transportation to facilities.
At Rural Health, it doesn’t matter if you carry a health insurance card in your wallet or not. The organization provides services on a sliding fee and offers copays as low as $15.
Although they focus on primary care and preventative health services, outreach is a huge part of their mission. If community members don’t know the resources exist, they won’t use them. In addition to primary medical care, Rural Health also offers dentistry, optometry, podiatry and telehealth for mental and behavioral health services. They even direct women toward reproductive and family planning services that are often widespread and fragmented across providers.
Approximately 40% of the clinic’s patients are indigent. The clinic also established an agreement with the City of Uniontown so that employees can waive their copays when seeking treatment at the clinic.
While larger cities often have similar centers to help the disadvantaged, rural areas need more endeavors like Rural Health. Of all the areas identified as underserved by providers, 60% lie in rural areas that are a considerable drive from the nearest city. If a patient lacks transportation, they may go without treatment altogether.
Why We Need More Clinics Like Rural Health
We should encourage more small-town providers to stay in their locations instead of fleeing to the big city, and any time an establishment can offer no- to low-cost healthcare in any capacity, that should be celebrated! Everyone deserves to see a doctor when they get sick, regardless of where they live or how much money they have.