The South Carolina Center for Rural and Primary Health Care has a new program which encourages medical students to practice in rural areas.
South Carolina is following a nationwide trend as its access to rural healthcare declines due to closing hospitals or lack of physicians. Since 2010, about 90 rural hospitals have closed nationwide. Three South Carolina counties lost their hospitals and a fourth is about to close.
The center’s director Dr. Charles Carter said the rate of the closures is accelerating. Carter said one in three rural hospitals nationwide is at risk of closing.
“It’s a very serious issue,” he said. “In rural communities, the population often has a higher proportion of older individuals and they have a higher proportion of individuals who either lack health insurance or are underinsured.” He said the problem is exacerbated in areas with aging populations who use Medicare rather than better-paying commercial health insurance.
The center is part of the University of South Carolina. The USC School of Medicine now offers a Rural Practice Loan Forgiveness program to encourage graduates to practice in the state’s rural areas in need. This is the first year for the program.
“We sponsor this program for the state-affiliated medical schools, state-affiliated nursing schools for nurse practitioners and the state-affiliated physician assistant schools to help recruit those professionals to rural practice throughout our state,” Carter said. “It’s critical that we do everything that we can to support not only hospitals in these communities and clinicians in these communities but really, healthcare is a driver of economic development and future success of communities is tightly linked to having a healthy healthcare system.”
Through collaboration with rural communities and practices, the “Improved Care and provision of Rural access to Eliminate health Disparities” (ICARED) project provides clinical services and practice support in rural communities. ICARED supports rural clinical practices through onsite primary care and specialty support, telemedicine, technical skills training, and community engagement.
“We send specialists from the university out to rural communities to partner with those communities to provide services that they do not have,” Carter said.
According to statistics from the South Carolina Office of Rural Health, 11 counties have fewer than 17 primary care physicians.
Carter said 21 of 46 counties in South Carolina have populations less than 50,000 people, which is a major factor of hospital support. Since 2010, Bamberg County Memorial Hospital, Marlboro Park Hospital and Southern Palmetto Hospital closed. Fairfield Memorial Hospital is scheduled to close some time next year.
“In these communities hospitals are an important employer, an important service provider for the local economy,” Carter said. “Not only in the jobs that they create as hospitals themselves but also in the service that they allow in the local community to be able to thrive by having ready access to health care.”