Dr. Jeff Heck, CEO of Mountain Area Health Education Center, shared his take on threats to health in this area, remarking, “Ironically, what makes Western North Carolina so desirable — the beauty of our predominantly rural region — also makes us vulnerable to a variety of challenges that are part of a national rural health crisis.”
Those challenges translate into five major concerns, Heck explains.
- Those who live in rural areas tend to be older, poorer and sicker than those living in urban areas. Here in WNC, we also have more “diseases of despair” like substance use, mental health challenges and suicide that contribute to a decreased life expectancy.
- Increasingly, our rural health systems can’t maintain vital services. Most WNC counties have shortages of primary care physicians, mental health professionals and dentists. Nationally, last year we witnessed the largest number of rural hospital closures; locally, six rural hospitals discontinued OB services over the past five years.
- Complicating matters, our region’s community-based services and nonprofits are understaffed and underfunded.
- There is also a growing gap in health disparities. The most recent 2018 Buncombe County data show that black babies are nearly four times more likely to die in the first year of life than white babies.
- All of these threats are made worse for those who are uninsured or underinsured. Only 25% of WNC residents have commercial insurance. Many rely on Medicare, Medicaid or safety-net care, which can be hard to access in rural areas. Many more go without care.
UNC Health Sciences at MAHEC and our partners across the region are working diligently to address these challenges and find solutions for our own rural health crisis and also the entire nation’s.