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Closing NM’s rural health care gap

When I turned 10 years old, my mother took me on a rite-of-passage trip to volunteer in Southeast Asia. We spent part of our summer in the jungles of Laos, working at schools and orphanages.

That was my first experience seeing people truly in need of health care access.

In the years since then, while exploring New Mexico on our annual family road trip, I started to notice parallels between the remote communities of Southeast Asia and the rural communities of New Mexico, particularly pertaining to the deficit of health care facilities.

Having grown up in Albuquerque, without any ties to other parts of the state, I lived largely unaware of the struggles that rural New Mexicans face when trying to access medical services.

When the time came to create my junior year community service project for high school, I decided to research those needs and the initiatives that address them.

I had the opportunity to shadow Dr. Saverio Sava at the First Choice Community Healthcare Clinic in Edgewood. Dr. Sava expressed that the fundamental challenges in rural health care are accessibility, availability and affordability.

Transportation to distant medical facilities is the largest obstacle for many patients to overcome, particularly for people who are elderly or disabled.

Too many people simply lack the gas money to travel the long distances required to receive health care and struggle to pay the medical bill at the end of that long drive.

Many rural residents live as far as three hours away from hospitals that can provide the tests and treatment they need. Just getting to a hospital or appropriate clinic becomes a day-long ordeal that may demand additional childcare as well as a loss of work and income.

Those expenditures inhibit patient access to the care they need and potentially cause more harm. Other challenges include bridging diverse cultural practices and addressing the need for more public health education.

Camille Wingate, the clinic’s counselor, also provided insights to some key issues that rural providers address:

  • Teen psychiatric care

New Mexico’s youth suicide rate was consistently 1.5 times higher than the national average from 2009-2013. This rate is highest in our rural counties. Increased public awareness of this elevated rate could hopefully lead to additional funding to build new psychiatric facilities, effectively reducing the rate of youth suicide.

  • Teen pregnancy

Access to teen pregnancy help centers needs to be facilitated as well. New Mexico’s teen pregnancy rate steadily ranks among the highest in America, particularly in its rural communities. This is due in part to the lack of family planning centers in rural New Mexico. Service learning programs such as TOP (Teen Outreach Program) offer teen advocacy initiatives that focus on teen pregnancy and dropout prevention. Poverty and a lack of available activities are some of the contributing factors that perpetuate teen pregnancy.

  • Drug and alcohol addiction

One of the leading concerns in rural New Mexican communities continues to be drug and alcohol addiction. The establishment of more community-based drug treatment centers and support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous would aid in decreasing the number of overdoses, and would also help to alleviate feelings of isolation for residents dealing with addictions.

University of New Mexico Hospital is currently addressing these issues by operating 43 clinics throughout the state. The hospital also provides access to rural communities through a national telemedicine network. This allows health care providers and patients a link to each other, and the most recent medical research and information.

Rural health care access in New Mexico has been improving due to the strategic planning and initiatives of local residents, advocates, and health care providers. The next decade should yield significant progress in attaining health care goals by expanding medical facilities and services to the communities that need them most.

Alexander Win is a member of the Community Service Executive Board at Albuquerque Academy.

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