I was five years old when my dad was diagnosed with cancer. He was only 34 and he had three daughters with a fourth on the way. We lived in Anchorage, Alaska and he worked long hours out in the arctic oil fields. In the 80’s, Anchorage—by far the largest city in the state—was growing rapidly, and by the time he was diagnosed, there were over 200,000 residents. It was no longer the small, rural municipality it had been just a decade or so ago. Unfortunately, the number of health care providers had not increased proportionally with the population. For the entire city, there were a total of one full-time and one half-time oncologist, and both of them were booked for the foreseeable future. The next closest oncologist was 1,500 miles away from home.
At the time in your life when you’re most scared about your health, your family, and your future, that is perhaps the worst news you could hear.
Through the kindness of a local nonprofit, my dad was able to fly to Seattle every two weeks for chemotherapy—a long way to go to access necessary health care. It’s a familiar storyline for anyone who has ever lived outside a major metropolitan area, and it’s familiar to many rural Coloradans.
Last week we published an infographic on rural Colorado, which illustrated the challenges of accessing health in remote parts of the state—but there’s another illustration which adds to the conversation. This is a map of Colorado’s rural hospitals, with a 25-mile radius drawn around each one (and urban areas shaded in purple):
It’s 25 miles as the crow flies—not by actual travel distance—so in reality the coverage area is much smaller. However, it does show that significant parts of Colorado are without local hospital care. A map of specialty care would look very similar. So would dental care. Or mental health care. The fact is, there are many Coloradans that, regardless of how good their insurance is, live farther from the care they need to be able to access it when they need it.
The good news is that the lack of access has inspired some advances in care delivery. The Colorado Telehealth Network has connected over 200 hospitals, clinics, and behavioral health care centers throughout all 64 counties, allowing long-distance collaboration and consultation that improves patient care and safety. Many rural communities who cannot afford or sustain a provider individually have come together to hire a provider they can share, or have gotten creative with their job opportunities to attract those in search of more flexible schedules. Some of our hospital systems, seeing the great need in rural areas, have also developed programs that bring their specialists to rural areas as well as transport patients into urban facilities. At the time, getting my dad the care he needed required a creative solution; these and other creative solutions are working for Coloradans today, and will help to move us forward as we approach upcoming changes to coverage and access.
Nearly 25 years later, I am still grateful every day that those 1,500 miles couldn’t stand between my dad and his health care. He’s still here, and he’s cancer-free. And that is news I will never tire of hearing.