One in four rural families could not get health care during pandemic

One in four rural families could not get health care during pandemic

Nearly a quarter (24 percent) of rural households have experienced difficulty receiving medical care for a serious health issue since the COVID-19 pandemic began, a report from National Public Radio, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health finds.

The fourth in a series of reports based on a survey of nearly thirty-five hundred adults conducted between July 1 and August 3, The Impact of Coronavirus on Households in Rural America (56 pages, PDF) found that of those respondents who said a family member could not get medical care — either because they could not get an appointment during the hours that worked for their schedule (46 percent), could not find a doctor who would see them (40 percent), or could not afford that care (39 percent) — 56 percent reported negative health consequences as a result. Nearly half (46 percent) of rural respondents said someone in their household had used a telehealth platform.

According to the survey, 42 percent of rural households were experiencing serious financial hardship as a result of the pandemic, including 85 percent of African-American and Latinx respondents and 36 percent of white respondents. Many rural households reported they had depleted their savings (31 percent), were having difficulty with their credit card, loan, or other debt payments (21 percent), rent or mortgage (16 percent), utility bills (18 percent), or car payments (16 percent), and/or had experienced serious problems affording food (15 percent) and medical care (15 percent). The survey also found that 43 percent of rural respondents said at least one member of their household had lost their job or business, been furloughed, or had wages or hours reduced since the start of the coronavirus outbreak — 66 percent of whom were experiencing serious financial problems. 

In addition, the report found that 54 percent of rural households with children were experiencing serious problems and 34 percent were having serious problems keeping their children's education going. At a time when Internet connectivity is essential for work and school, respondents with children said they either did not have a high-speed Internet connection or had serious problems with their connectivity.

"In a period where access to medical care is critical for many people, it is of serious concern that so many in rural America with serious medical conditions could not be seen," said Robert J. Blendon, co-director of the survey and Richard L. Menschel Professor of Public Health and Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis Emeritus at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. "Unlike in other studies showing this is largely related to financial issues, in this case the COVID-19 situation created a major barrier for rural Americans to be seen by a physician or hospital. It is clear that in an epidemic, we have to find better ways to manage access to care for people who need it."

"The Impact of Coronavirus on Households in Rural America." National Public Radio, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health report 10/07/2020. "Poll: 24% of households in rural America report being unable to get medical care for serious problems during the coronavirus outbreak, with 56% reporting harmful health consequences as a result." Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health press release 10/07/2020.