Millions of Americans are receiving healthcare that rivals Third World standards. Vast regions of the country have seen medical services evaporate over the past decade. Hospitals have closed, doctors have left, and pharmacies have been forced into bankruptcy. In this series, Dried Up: America’s Medical Deserts, the Washington Examiner will investigate what happened to these now barren terrains. Without adequate access to a hospital, primary care center, OBGYN, or other specialized medical services, the health of an estimated 30 million people is put in jeopardy.
The United States may be a First World nation, but millions of Americans are receiving healthcare that rivals Third World standards.
Vast regions of the country, stretching from western Pennsylvania to the Central Valley in California, have seen medical services dry up over the past decade. Hospitals have closed, doctors have left, and pharmacies have been forced into bankruptcy. What’s left are barren terrains known as “medical deserts,” a term coined for areas where residents have to travel more than an hour to get to a hospital, primary care center, OBGYN, or other specialized medical services.
Without adequate access to medical care, the health of entire communities is put in jeopardy. It is estimated that 30 million people currently live in these “medical deserts.”
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WHAT IS A MEDICAL DESERT?
A medical desert is a term that refers to an area whose population has inadequate access to medical care. It covers many dimensions, including access to primary healthcare providers, maternity wards, emergency services, trauma centers, mental health facilities, nursing homes, community health centers, and pharmacies.
WHERE ARE THEY FOUND?
More than 80% of counties across the U.S. lack adequate healthcare infrastructure in some form. That means every state in the country has at least one desert county that fits the description, said Tori Marsh, director of GoodRx, a consumer-focused digital healthcare platform.
South Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, and Kansas have the largest number of counties living in a pharmacy desert, where residents have to drive more than 15 minutes to access a pharmacy, according to a 2021 GoodRx study. When it comes to primary care providers, about 30% of Mississippi residents currently live without one near. The state also ranks 49th out of 50 in terms of clinical care. Vermont, Alaska, Arkansas, and Maine have the largest share of people living in a hospital desert, while Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, Nevada, and Idaho have the most trauma center desert counties. In Idaho, there are no Level 1 trauma centers in the state. In Nevada, there is only one, University Medical Center, which has a survival rate of 96% for patients who can make it to the center within an hour.
Despite its name, medical deserts are not confined to rural areas, though most are found there.
“Just because you live in a very populated city doesn’t necessarily mean you have the infrastructure needed,” Marsh said. “It might mean that you have fewer hospital beds; it might mean that there are not enough providers for your community.”
Some of the largest urban medical deserts are located in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City.
WHY DO THEY EXIST?
Medical deserts form when opportunities and investments dry up. Hospitals close, medical professionals start to leave, and there are no incentives to recruit other doctors.
Geographic and transportation issues also play a part in the growth of medical deserts. In some rural areas, a lack of broadband internet or cellular connectivity can cripple a community’s access to healthcare services, telehealth programs, and medication.
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WHY SHOULD I CARE?
Medical deserts affect all people, some directly and others indirectly.
“In this country, we are interdependent on one another,” Michael Meit, co-director of the Center for Rural Health Research at East Tennessee State University, told the Washington Examiner. “Absolutely interdependent. If you want food on your table, if you want energy, if you want a robust military, if you want good recreational opportunities … all of these things happen in our rural communities. Our urban people would be screwed without our rural people and vice versa.”
Meit added, “If you want something to happen when you turn on the light switch, if you want things you can buy when you go to the grocery store, you better darn well be concerned about your rural brothers and sisters out there.”