Feature Q&A with Andra Adkins-Hutchins, Thomas P. Miller & Associates (TPMA)
Guest post by Matt Green
As America seemingly resurfaces from COVID-19 social distancing restrictions, a quick reflection of the last two years raises significant disparities between those that were relatively efficiently able to ‘virtualize’ their operations, maintain their jobs, teach their children and access healthcare services and those who were not. Said disparities were largely found between rural and urban communities, State to State and across the country.
Access to quality healthcare, much like access to broadband connectivity, was deemed a high-priority by rural communities across the country according to leading economic development firm, Thomas P. Miller & Associates‘ inaugural ‘Prosperity Through Equity’ Survey, a study which the organization seeks to replicate annually.
Andrea Adkins-Hutchins, Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Thomas P. Miller & Associates, responds to findings of the Survey pertaining to access to quality healthcare in America, pre, amid and post-COVID-19.
CD Media: What are the greatest barriers following conducting the Prosperity Through Equity Survey to rural communities garnering access to quality healthcare in 2022?
Andrea Adkins-Hutchins: Like most everything in rural America, a lack of resources often stems from a lack of concentrated populations.
The space between customers is often cost prohibitive to offer a significant amount of services within remote rural environments. Couple that with the large number of low income and uninsured in these same communities, and most hospitals can’t afford to do business, let alone provide top-notch diverse services.
CD Media: Was this disparity in access an issue before COVID-19? If so, how has the pandemic exacerbated this problem?
Andrea Adkins-Hutchins: While access to quality healthcare was an issue pre-pandemic, the healthcare industry as a whole has been strained. Unfortunately, many national issues are exacerbated in rural communities; this is often due to a lack of public resources and private investment.
So when community health providers began offering telehealth as a result of safety measures being taken due to COVID, many rural communities found themselves completely cut-off from routine healthcare options because of clear and present digital equity issues.
CD Media: What are the steps that can be taken to begin to remove some of those barriers?
Andrea Adkins-Hutchins : Improved telehealth infrastructure in the way of increased broadband and overall access to healthcare is a start – But often those individuals who need healthcare the most are at a disadvantage when it comes to digital literacy.
So while telehealth is a great way to increase access for some, it’s not a fix for all.
When you want to look for the greatest innovation – you often must look to those with the most desperation. Rural Health Info, for example, has identified many new and innovative models to address healthcare gaps; even going so far as to ensure adequate emergency care services, which is a huge issue for most rural areas. But some local and state laws may make these types of innovations hard to stand up. State and local governments should consider barriers to entry that existing policies, once meant to protect their populations, may impact when communities work to transform rural healthcare.
CD Media: How can Thomas P. Miller & Associates (TPMA) work with rural communities to help them overcome this problem?
Andrea Adkins-Hutchins: Setting up and starting new systems must come with a strategy and a plan to ensure long-term success. TPMA can aid communities in identifying the necessary infrastructure, policy improvements, and eco-systems needed to quickly and successfully turn around rural health care systems.
CD Media: What are the calls to action you would like to see the federal, state, and local governments heeding when it comes to this particular issue?
Andrea Adkins-Hutchins: Most issues in rural America can be fixed by first seeking to innovate; identifying barriers to that innovation; and working toward a plan for implementation. Unfortunately, that process takes a lot of support, collaboration, and labor to move ahead.
Often the government writes a check and stands back like the job is done. But while writing a check is a great way to ensure adequate funding is available for innovation, it is a far cry from providing the necessary support that many communities need.
For even when funds are made available, the reporting and compliance is often too great for communities to take advantage of. This leads to slow or even non-existent improvements.
Take for instance the funding Congress appropriated back in 2010 to set up the Federal Office for Rural Health Policy (FORHP). FORHP funded an 19-month cooperative agreement award to the Montana Health Research & Education Foundation. While valuable, this work appears to be moving far slower than the needs of the communities that it represents.
Government should provide more resources to allow wider distribution of and implementation for best practices of the existing programs already funded through programs like FORHP.