Rural healthcare improving; more progress needed

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Most of us live in small towns by choice, because we love the comparatively slow pace of life, short commutes and safe, friendly neighborhoods.

Regardless of the size of the town where we live, the residents need basic services such as utilities, food, education and, especially in emergencies, medical care.

Rural Nebraska has made much progress in medical care over the last decade, but more is needed, according to the 2018 rural healthcare workforce report released by the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

On the plus side, there has been an 11 percent increase in the number of physicians in the state over the last 10 years, and there are now 1,148 nurse practitioners, a relatively new profession in the state, as well as 400 more pharmacists and 1,200 more pharmacy technicians compared to 2009. Your chances of surviving a medical emergency have also improved, since the state has nearly 1,400 paramedics available now, more than 70 percent higher than a decade ago.

On the minus side, however, 13 counties still do not have a primary care physician.

Nearly 20 percent of physicians in Nebraska are more than 60 years old and likely to retire in the near future. Eighteen of 93 counties have no pharmacist, and the current health workforce doesn’t necessarily reflect the population being served.

The number of dentists has decreased slightly over the last 10 years, and the distribution of allied health professionals is uneven — north-central Nebraska, for instance, has virtually no occupational therapists, speech-language pathologist or medical nutrition therapists.

The study, which examined 21 healthcare professions ranging from physicians and physician assistants to nursing, dental and allied health professionals, called for continued support of “pipeline programs” that offer incentives to practice in rural communities; subsidization of telecommunications and other infrastructure for electronic delivery of healthcare in remote areas and other steps to meet anticipated needs.

Despite such incentives, the easiest way to recruit a physician or other medical provider to a rural area is to encourage and assist rural students to get the education to become a healthcare worker.

If you or someone in your family is thinking about a future career as graduation time approaches, the medical profession deserves serious consideration.

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