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Barriers between rural New Mexicans and health care can and must be addressed

If the past year has taught us anything, it is that health is wealth. The fear of our bodies becoming weak due to a virus has been a thought on many people’s minds. You may have made a few improvements like purchasing an exercise bike, trying new supplements, or putting your mental health first. Changes like these are positive, but what do you do if the nearest hospital is three hours away? What if your local grocery store doesn’t carry any produce? What if you have a life-threatening emergency and there is only one trauma center to serve you? A diet of kombucha and kale can only do so much, and they cannot bring you physically closer to the medical treatment you may need.

New Mexico is the fifth-largest state in the nation with a total area of 147,040 square miles. Our state is known for its beautiful wide-open spaces and vast landscapes, but what happens when there is a medical emergency? What if you have a situation that requires a specialist? The University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque is the only Level 1 trauma center in the state, which can provide the highest level of care for emergencies. The next Level 1 trauma center is 400 miles away in any direction. Many New Mexicans also have to travel great distances to see specialists for various medical issues. This requires time and money, not only for the medical service but also for food and lodging.

Why have COVID-19 restrictions been so tight in New Mexico since the start of the pandemic? New Mexico has a limited number of hospital beds and health care providers. There are a total of 5,104 hospital beds throughout the state, which is less than 2 beds per 1,000 people. On average, there is 1 provider for every 3,500 New Mexicans. Among 33 counties, 32 are experiencing a shortage of basic health care professionals. Furthermore, our population has many senior citizens who are at high risk of developing health problems. Issues like limited providers and hospital beds need attention.

The New Mexico Public Health Institute published a white paper on rural health in 2018. It is no secret New Mexico contains more rural counties – 26, than metropolitan counties – seven. Rural counties also have a higher proportion of children and senior citizens. Rural counties rank the highest for suicide deaths. Youth in these counties have the most drug arrests, use of illegal drugs and binge drinking. Even though Obamacare expanded coverage in New Mexico, only 61% of rural New Mexicans received Medicaid, compared to 74% in metropolitan counties. The disparity is depressingly clear.

Our health is made of many factors; taken together, these are known as the social determinants of health. These determinants include income, education, employment, culture, family, safety, community, housing and transportation among many others. Improving health care access and quality in rural counties requires enunciating these determinants and addressing shortcomings.

Fixing a flawed system requires effort from all angles. For example, patients often feel more comfortable learning their provider is bilingual and raised in the same culture. Our state must attract more health care providers with options like loan repayment and financial incentives. We should inspire college students to take up the banner of public and population health. Our students can end our medical provider shortage and contribute to the state’s health in myriad ways. Beyond medicine, nursing and care, our students can focus on the determinants of health and the promotion of wellness.

For many of us, especially those living in Albuquerque, a trip to a specialist’s office is less than 45 minutes away. Meanwhile, a “quick appointment” can mean a whole day for those living in rural areas. New Mexico cannot, and should not, wait any longer to address rural health.

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