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Predicting the Future Demand of Rural Health Care

In the current economic environment, you might feel like it’s a good time to stick your head in the sand and wait out the storm. As a health care leader, however, it is more critical now than ever to create strategies that will promote the growth and financial viability of your community’s health care organizations. A good place to start is by surveying demographic, community, and industry trends that may influence health care demand in your rural areas.

Predicting the Future Demand of Rural Health CareDemographic factors

Americans are enjoying a life expectancy of nearly 80 years. These seniors live in high concentrations in rural areas, with the highest numbers found in the temperate climates of the southern and western states. As the population ages, health care use rates increase exponentially. For example, individuals aged 75+ are more than four times as likely to require an inpatient stay as their counterparts aged 55 to 64, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

In addition to the challenges rural health care providers face in caring for an aging population, childhood poverty will also require attention. These areas are facing much higher instances of childhood poverty than urban areas. In fact, according to the Housing Assistance Council (HAC), 84 percent of U.S. counties with poverty rates higher than the national average are rural.

Community health factors

The overall health of Americans is diminishing due to higher instances of inactivity and poor diet. A larger percentage of rural populations display high-risk health behaviors, such as alcohol and tobacco use, obesity, and inactivity, when compared to urban and suburban populations. These risk factors are linked to chronic illnesses, including diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, which account for up to 75 percent of all health care spending.

Role of family

Rural providers are seeing a greater demand for care as a result of a decrease in family caregiving. With elders living longer and family members moving away from their hometown in increasing numbers, fewer relatives are available to provide care. This trend is expected to continue and will shift the duty of caring for these individuals to health care organizations. The demand for home- and community-based services, as well as assisted living, is rising as more Americans desire to live independently. Nursing homes will increasingly become a place for short stays. By 2030, it is estimated that stays less than 90 days will account for 75 to 80 percent of all admissions, based on LarsonAllen demand estimates stemming from studies done in Florida, Minnesota, and New York.

What can be done to flourish in such an environment?

There is no doubt that these factors will challenge your ability to provide health care services in your community. The continued success of a rural hospital is dependent on four critical factors:
  • Provider recruitment and retention: Acquiring and retaining family practice physicians, surgeons, nurses, and other health care professionals will be critical to the financial viability.
  • Community economic development: Overall poverty levels and the number of persons uninsured will be lower as long as there are employers that provide jobs and benefits to those in the community.
  • Cost-effective treatment for the uninsured: By serving these individuals in an innovative and economical way, it may be possible to prevent them from becoming acutely ill and requiring emergency care.
  • Expanding beyond traditional hospital and ambulatory care for seniors: A blend of home- and community-based options will provide cost-effective care for the elderly in our communities.

The steady—and in some places growing—demand for health care services in rural America will prove to be challenging for many providers. Analyzing the dynamics that affect rural health needs and determining how they may shape the distinctive characteristics of your community will better equip you to make strategic decisions and deliver high-quality care in the years to come.

cory rutledgeCory R. Rutledge is a health care manager with LarsonAllen.
Contact Cory at or 612-376-4524.


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