As the coronavirus has continued to spread throughout the United States, its impact has been felt mostly in populated areas like Seattle, New York and Boston. At the same time, states with a more rural demographic — like Idaho, Alabama and West Virginia – have been spared, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listing no reported cases through March 13.
Logically, it would make sense that more densely populated areas would have higher risks of community spread. But that doesn’t mean rural areas are not at risk. If a rural community does experience an outbreak, it could be more vulnerable because it lacks the necessary medical facilities to treat an expanding number of patients.
Source: University of North Carolina Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research
Indeed, the shortage of medical services in rural areas has become more acute in recent years. Since 2005, 168 hospitals in rural areas have closed, according to at the University of North Carolina’s Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research. And that pace has been accelerating, with 25 more closing between January 1, 2019, and February 2020.
Nearly 20% of the American population lives in rural areas.
When a hospital closes in a rural community, the effect goes beyond residents needing to drive an extra 30 miles to a hospital to receive care. It can have a material effect to their local economy.
But the coronavirus represents a potentially significant new challenge, with nearly 20% of the American population living in rural areas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Not only do rural hospitals often lack the resources of larger, big-city medical centers, like ventilators, intensive care units and large emergency rooms that can handle more patients, but rural hospitals also often do not have the medical workers with the training to handle patients with more specialized needs.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Enter virtual medicine. With advancements in virtually delivered health care and screening, the treatment of mild cases could perhaps be managed virtually. Virtual health companies like the publicly traded Teladoc discuss services they offer to individuals who believe they may have the disease.
Patients who have symptoms can limit their exposure to other potentially infected people by not going into a physical setting while at the same time reducing the burden on the care delivery system. Additionally, digital health tools can be delivered anywhere where Internet access is accessible (which is potentially an additional issue for rural areas).
As a result of several factors, including the spread of the virus and the ability for Teladoc to provide services to potentially infected people, Teladoc’s shares have outperformed the S&P 500 and the S&P 500 Health Care Sector by a large amount.
But virtual medicine may not be the cure-all for the challenges hospitals are currently facing. To start, many hospitals are focusing on educating their communities, distributing educational material and content regarding hand-washing techniques and the importance of following social distancing protocols.
Additionally, hospitals are focusing on preparedness. Even if many rural hospitals have yet to be affected, they are working with government agencies to determine the plan if an outbreak were to be experienced in their communities.
In the end, health officials understand, prevention and preparedness are the best medicine.