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Stephen V. Smith

Stephen Smith

With COVID-19 infection rates climbing in rural counties, November 19 may well be the most important National Rural Health Day in the program’s 10-year history.

National Rural Health Day celebrates the health care providers and other stakeholders who serve our rural communities. While rural living offers many benefits, factors such as physician shortages, access to specialists, and distance from major hospitals make it more difficult for rural residents to access the health care they need. Further, rural communities tend to have a larger elderly population with chronic illnesses and transportation challenges.

Across America, state offices of rural health organize events on National Rural Health Day to shine a light on these issues and the work being done to address them.

Ruralite Healthcare Series

One of the key messages of this year’s National Rural Health Day is “Innovation: Rural America is fueling an innovative rural health infrastructure.” Nowhere is this theme better illustrated than in the area of telehealth.

McKinsey & Company recently released a report on consumer sentiment during the pandemic. The report showed that 23% of those surveyed had used telehealth services for physical health issues for the first time, or increased its use, since the pandemic started. Another 14% indicated the same for mental health services.

This is an acceleration of trends that were already underway. Advances in technology have made telehealth programs easier to use for patients and their providers, and the expansion of broadband has put telehealth within reach of more communities.

As we celebrate these advances on National Rural Health Day, there is still much work to do. Estimates of the number of rural residents with no broadband access range from 18 million to more than 40 million. Tremendous progress has been made in the past decade to lower these numbers, thanks to work on national broadband policy, federal and state grant programs, public/private partnerships, and the willingness of rural broadband providers to tackle the challenges of high cost, low population density and rugged terrain that are inherent to rural broadband expansion.

There are also concerns beyond the construction of robust fiber networks. Writing in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, Dr. Howard M. Julien said, “A successful transition to telemedicine requires the intersection of at least 3 key factors: access to broadband internet, an internet-capable device, and sufficient technology literacy to take advantage of the first 2 factors.”

These layers are daunting, even while other trends continue. In the same decade that saw significant progress in rural broadband development, some 134 rural hospitals have closed. The rural population continues to age. And the affordability of health insurance and prescription drugs is an ever-present concern.

But we are moving in the right direction. At WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources, we partner with broadband providers who are doing the hard work of connecting their communities with robust fiber networks. And while the pandemic has devastated lives and communities, it is also creating opportunities for rural regions to welcome new people, ideas, and businesses.

There are many reasons that some 20% of Americans choose to call rural America home. The overall quality of life outweighs the challenges, especially when viewed alongside the progress that rural communities throughout the U.S. are making. On National Rural Health Day, let’s acknowledge those challenges, celebrate the progress, and honor those who are working to create a better, healthier life for us all.