Small Town Healthcare Is a Big Time Problem

smallTwo hours feels like 20 when you have a child in pain, when your arms are wrapped around her whispering, “It will be OK. We’re going to a hospital. The doctors will take care of you. I’m here.”

We had to drive two hours to find a hospital with a plastic surgeon on call on a Sunday night because that’s what her injuries required. We don’t have that here in Sullivan County. They don’t have it in neighboring Orange County either. All our options were hours away.

And so on we drove.

A month later, I can put this all in perspective. She wasn’t dying. She didn’t need to be airlifted or even transported by ambulance. We were lucky.

But perspective is lost on small children in pain, on their worried parents whose bodies are in full “hide the catastrophic freak out going on inside me and be the rock they need me to be” mode.

Nor does perspective fix the problem. We live in a beautiful area. We raise children in safe schools. We have clean air and clean water.

But our healthcare system is a disaster.

The New York State Department of Health estimates 51 percent of our county’s deaths are premature, meaning they occur before age 75. The New York State rate is closer to 40 percent. Take out New York City, and that rate drops even lower, to about 37 percent. Our hospitalization rates are higher than the state average and so is our age-adjusted mortality rate.

A quick disclaimer: This is not about the individual people in healthcare in our county. We have talented nurses and doctors and other healthcare professionals. They are educated and intelligent and they provide fantastic service.

They do the absolutely best they can with what they’ve got to work with.

It’s what they have to work with that is the problem. Rural healthcare professionals nationwide face the challenge of a typically poorer clientele with higher rates of alcohol and tobacco usage. A piece of that is on us, the patients.

But consider this: When you know that making a doctors appointment will require an hour’s drive, plus wait times that at some local healthcare facilities are hours long, how much time on the job will that cost you? In a county where the unemployment rate is higher than the state average and the median family income more than $10,000 lower (again, from the New York State Department of Health figures), it’s no surprise people delay healthcare. We can’t just pop out to have that weird growth on the side of the neck or that rash on the toe looked at by a doctor.

Even when we do follow through, when we do check in with the doctor and receive a diagnosis, receive treatment plans, the time and cost of care is astronomical. Ride 2 Survive, the fabulous non-profit that was created several years ago by local cancer survivors to help fund medical transport for locals who have to drive hundreds of miles a week for cancer care is a vital organization. But in an ideal world, we wouldn’t need such a thing. We wouldn’t need to drive hours out of the county with our sick children to find specialist care. We wouldn’t need to debate time out of work vs. going to a doctor. We wouldn’t worry that if an emergency happens, it’s time that will kill us.

It’s a juggle every small town resident in America is familiar with. How much do we value “preserving the rural character” of our area vs. meeting our own needs?

But the fact is, we need to be around to enjoy that rural character, and we won’t be if we can’t improve our healthcare.

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