Friday, March 4, 2011

Improvements to rural medicine?

The introduction of the new iPad by Steve Jobs the other day got me thinking, do such devices, which now have real medical capabilities, have the ability to make rural medicine easier and more accessible?

Rural medicine, in some respects, has undergone somewhat of a revival. For example, Obama’s appointment to Surgeon General in 2009 was Regina Benjamin, a rural health practitioner from Alabama. Dr. Benjamin founded the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic in Alabama and was also the Associate Dean for Rural Health at the University of South Alabama College of Medicine, prior to becoming Surgeon General. In fact, upon her appointment, Dr. Benjamin stressed that she would continue her goal of assisting the uninsured and ignored individuals within the United States.

At the same time, many medical schools have begun to push for rural rotations for their students. While part of this might be altruistic, the move also has a practical effect. Having the experience of working and living in a rural area gives students an idea of what life is like in a rural community – to make an informed choice of whether they would like to practice in such an area.

It is evident, however, that the practice of rural medicine has a long way to go. First, many rural areas do not have hospitals in the first place to facilitate residents and medical students having a place to practice. Second, many medical students and residents have never lived in rural communities before, and do not understand the workings of the area or the was to interact with the residents – clearly this could have a detrimental effect on providing proper and accurate care to individuals who need it. Third, many rural areas may not have the proper tools and devices necessary to give proper health care to rural communities (and perhaps this is where the iPad comes in).

Even if the iPad does have the capabilities of broadening rural medicine, some additional woes still exist. While family medicine in rural areas has been increasing, in this article, the downsides of slow Internet, lack of cell phone service, and a limited potential of dating – all of which seem rather trite – may in fact have a detrimental effect on young professionals who move into these areas to practice medicine. As the article states, “What more can be done to attract primary-care physicians to areas that need them, and then to keep them there?”
While it is still not a clear line to providing medicine to rural communities, clearly the recent interest in doing so can only be a beneficial improvement. Nonetheless, it is important to take into consideration the woes of the residents and future doctors who may in fact be providing such health care in these areas. It also seems incredibly important to consider the need for faster internet access and cell phone service. Ultimately, tools like the iPad may exist and be useful, but broadband access and the means of communication need to be available too.


RH said...

Hopefully the exposure of medical students to rural places and their unique challenges will motivate some of them to ultimately practice in rural areas as a public service. Although many of the objections that people have about living in rural areas do seem trite, they do add up. It would be great if there was some sort of system where not only doctors, but lawyers, teachers, and other professionals could periodically work in under-served areas.

Jen Wickens said...

RH - I think that your proposal of a system of rotations for doctors/lawyers/teachers is a creative solution to the problem of a lack of professional services to rural communities across the US. However, a lot of those professional services work best when relationships between the professional and their customer are established over time. Still, any access is better than no access.