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Approximately 60 million United States residents live in rural areas. That’s 15% of the country’s total population. 

Not only do rural Americans face numerous health disparities compared with their urban counterparts, but they’re also more likely to die from heart disease, cancer, unintentional injury, chronic lower respiratory disease, and stroke. Even though these individuals tend to be older and sicker than residents of urban areas, they typically encounter more limited access to healthcare. 

Nearly 200 rural hospitals in the U.S. have shut down since 2005, and the patient-to-primary care physician ratio in rural areas is only 39.8 physicians per 100,000 people. 

Geography isn’t the only obstacle for rural Americans seeking healthcare. Many rural residents lack insurance coverage, which is associated with less access to care and increased risk of poor health outcomes. 

A valuable healthcare resource for these residents is federally qualified health centers (FQHCs). In addition to providing primary care services to Americans in rural areas of the U.S., they serve patients in nonrural areas with medical shortages. Overall, there are more than 1,400 FQHCs throughout the nation serving vulnerable and underserved populations — more than 14 million individuals and families annually in 50 states and territories. 

Challenges Faced by FQHCs 

Because FQHCs were created to serve communities that may have financial disadvantages, language or geographic barriers, or other specific needs, they make it easier for marginalized populations to access and engage in healthcare. There is strong evidence that FQHCs increase access to primary care and improve health outcomes for their patients. Plus, these facilities have been shown to perform as well as or better than non-safety net providers on measures of quality and access to care, such as continuity of care and delivery of preventive screenings and services.

The idea of FQHCs doesn’t always meet actuality. For example, many of them are hindered by a large patient volume, and budget and financial limitations. Even with federal funding, some FQHCs struggle to achieve financial sustainability because they provide a high percentage of uncompensated care 

Just like with physicians, operating in underserved areas means recruiting and retaining qualified staff — both clinical and non-clinical —isn’t easy. Many FQHCs treat patients with high levels of clinical complexity, so existing staff endure an increased workload, which often leads to burnout. 

Advantages of Adopting Digital Health Tools 

Making their services more accessible has been achieved by some FQHCS through the adoption of technology, especially digital health tools. With resources such as digital check-in, throughput is improved, the need for paperwork is markedly decreased, inaccurate data entry is mitigated, and patients spend less time in the waiting room. Staff are burdened with fewer administrative tasks, allowing them to focus on other high-value tasks. The result is not only increased patient and staff satisfaction but also lower costs. 

Another example of digital health utilized by FQHCS? Patient online scheduling. This tool enables patients in underserved areas to find and book in-person or virtual appointments with a provider or service at a time and location most convenient to them. 

Along with patient online scheduling, digital health tools can be employed to send automated appointment reminders. By delivering information to patients via a method they most prefer, they’re less likely to miss their appointment or schedule a follow-up visit. 

Although less utilized than during the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth continues to be a valuable technology for FQHCs and other healthcare providers. Offering telehealth visits as an option allows more patients to be seen with less overhead and makes it easier for patients to attend and keep their appointments. The CARES Act allowed FQHCs to furnish distant site telehealth services to Medicare patients at any location for the duration of the COVID-19 public health emergency and the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023 extended that ability through December 31, 2024. 

Epion Health aids FQHCs in overcoming many care access obstacles by providing a HIPAA-compliant platform to collect much-needed patient information to support UDS reporting. The platform is lightweight and easily implemented, so it won’t tax your FQHC’s IT resources or require weeks of education and onboarding. Schedule a meeting with us to learn more!