Rural Health Nationally

Rural Health Today

Rural Health NationalLy

The obstacles faced by health care providers and patients in rural areas are vastly different than those in urban areas. Economic factors, cultural and social differences, educational shortcomings, lack of recognition by legislators and the sheer isolation of living in remote areas all conspire to create health care disparities and impede rural Americans in their struggle to lead normal, healthy lives.

Workforce Shortage Problems

Ease of access to a physician is greater in urban areas. The patient to primary care physician ratio in rural areas is only 39.8 physicians per 100,000 people, compared to 53.3 physicians per 100,000 in urban areas. This uneven distribution of physicians has an impact on the health of the population. [2]

There are 30 generalist dentists per 100,000 residents in urban areas versus 22 per 100,000 in rural areas. [3] 

Socioeconomic Factors

  • Rural residents tend to be poorer. On average, per capita income in rural areas is $9,242[4] lower than the average per capita income in the United States, and rural Americans are more likely to live below the poverty level. The disparity in incomes is even greater for minorities living in rural areas. About 25% of rural children live in poverty. [5]
  • People who live in rural America rely more heavily on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. According to the Center for Rural Affairs, 14.6% of rural households receive SNAP benefits, while 10.9% of metropolitan households receive assistance. In all, 1.1 million households receive SNAP benefits. [6]
  • Rural residents have greater transportation difficulties reaching health care providers, often traveling great distances to reach a doctor or hospital.
  • Tobacco use is a significant problem among rural youth. Rural youths over the age of 12 are more likely to smoke cigarettes (26.6% versus 19% in large metro areas). They are also far more likely to use smokeless tobacco, with usage rates of 6.7% in rural areas and 2.1% in metropolitan areas. [7]
  • 53% of rural Americans lack access to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps of bandwidth, the benchmark for internet speed according to the Federal Communications Commission. [8] Lack of high-speed internet access can be a hindrance to accessing information, representing another challenge rural Americans face.
  • Rural communities have more uninsured residents, as well as higher rates of unemployment, leading to less access to care.

Health Inequity

  • More than 50% of vehicle crash related fatalities happen in rural areas, even though less than one-third of miles traveled in a vehicle occur there. [9]
  • In rural areas, there is an additional 22% risk of injury-related death. [10]
  • Rural areas have more frequent occurrences of diabetes and coronary heart disease than nonrural areas. [11]
  • Mental health creates new challenges in rural areas, such as:
    • Accessibility: Rural residents often travel long distances to receive services, are less likely to be insured for mental health services, and less likely to recognize the illness.
    • Availability: Chronic shortages of mental health professionals exist, as mental health providers are more likely to live in urban centers.
    • Acceptability: The stigma of needing or receiving mental health care and fewer choices of trained professionals create barriers to care. [12]
  • Rural youth are twice as likely to commit suicide. [13]
National Rural Health Snapshot Rural Urban
Percentage of population
Number of physicians per 10,000 people
Number of specialists per 100,000 people
Population aged 65 and older
Average per capita income
Non-Hispanic white population
Adults who describe health status as fair/poor
Adolescents who smoke
Male life expectancy in years
Female life expectancy
Percentage of dual-eligible Medicare beneficiaries
Medicare beneficiaries without drug coverage
Percentage covered by Medicaid

All information in this table is from the Health Resources and Services Administration and Rural Health Information Hub.


[1] American Academy of Family Physicians. (2015). Rural Practice, Keeping Physicians In. Retrieved October 7, 2015, from

[2] Hing, E, Hsiao, C. US Department of Health and Human Services. State Variability in Supply of Office-based Primary Care Providers: United States 2012. NCHS Data Brief, No. 151, May 2014.

[3] Doescher, M. P., MD, MSPH, Keppel, G. A., MPH, Skillman, S. M., MS, & Rosenblatt, R. A., MD, MPH, MFR. (2009). The Crisis in Rural Dentistry (Issue brief).

[4] Rural Health Information Hub. (2016). Social Determinants of Health. Retrieved June 8, 2016.

[5] United States Department of Agriculture. (2015, December 17). Poverty Overview. Retrieved June 8, 2016.

[6] Bailey, J. M. (2014, July). Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Rural Households. Retrieved June 8, 2016.

[7] Rural Health Information Hub. (2015, May 15). Substance Abuse in Rural Areas. Retrieved June 8, 2016.

[8] Federal Communications Commission. (2015, February 4). 2015 Broadband Progress Report. Retrieved June 9, 2016.

[9] Urban/Rural Comparison. (2016, February). Retrieved June 13, 2016.

[10] Myers, S. R., C. C. Branas, B. C. French, M. L. Nance, M. J. Kallan, D. J. Wiebe, and B. G. Carr. “Safety in Numbers: Are Major Cities the Safest Places in the United States ?American College of Emergency Physicians 62, no. 4 (2013): 408-18. 2013. Accessed June 13, 2016. doi:10.1016/j.annemergmed.2013.05.030.

[11] O’Connor, A., & Wellenius, G. (2012, April 24). Rural-urban disparities in the prevalence of diabetes and coronary heart disease. The Royal Society for Public Health, 126(10), 813-820. doi:10.1016/j.puhe.2012.05.029.

[12] Rural Mental Health. (2014, December 15).

[13] Why is the Risk of Youth Suicide Higher in Rural Areas?