In rural America, access to healthcare can be hard to reach. Hospitals are few and far between and healthcare providers are often overwhelmed, especially recently during the COVID-19 pandemic. In rural areas, COPD, the third leading cause of disease-related death in the U.S., sees higher mortality rates than in urban areas. This is partially because rural Americans have higher smoking rates, less access to cessation services as compared to urban-dwellers and have greater difficulty accessing quality healthcare.

As such, rural healthcare providers face challenges when providing care to patients with COPD, as well. The American Lung Association and the Learn More, Breathe Better® program from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute can help identify these challenges and provide resources for rural providers to help their patients.

Barriers to Care

Though rural areas across the U.S. are home to millions of Americans, these areas are often lacking in many healthcare resources that are more readily available to urban dwellers, creating a gap in care, including when it comes to treating COPD. Americans living in rural communities are more likely to live at or under the poverty level, and as such, are often uninsured or underinsured.

Additionally, smoking rates among adults are 40% higher in rural areas than in urban cities (15.4% versus 11.0%, respectively), and cessation resources are harder to access. Bridging these gaps can be difficult for healthcare professionals providing care in these areas.

In a study published by the National Library of Medicine, rural healthcare providers said that patients with multiple chronic conditions and patients’ inability to recognize and report their own COPD symptoms are the greatest barriers to providing critical care. This same study found that these providers worry about their ability to prevent their patients’ COPD symptoms from getting worse and are not satisfied with their access to pulmonologists, and especially pulmonary rehabilitation.

Lack of access to care and resources can be frustrating, but the American Lung Association in partnership with NHLBI’s Learn More, Breathe Better® is here to help.

Bridging the Gap

In rural areas, COPD mortality rates are higher in large part due to lack of education and increased smoking rates. There is a need for more widespread treatment, including pulmonary rehabilitation, oxygen therapy and education efforts to assist patients with self-management.

The American Lung Association is a proud recipient of the NHLBI’s Learn More, Breathe Better 2021-2022 Community Subcontractor Program. To boost education efforts in rural communities, the American Lung Association offers resources for rural healthcare providers facing the challenge of treating COPD through the Reaching Rural Providers Initiative. The initiative aims to increase early diagnosis of COPD in rural communities by educating healthcare professionals about the disease. From smoking cessation to COPD Action Plans, this resource center can help providers find the best care for their patients. For rural providers in Indiana, West Virginia, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky and Tennessee, the initiative also offers a COPD Overview Course and personalized support with printed materials.

In addition, the NHLBI’s Learn More, Breathe Better program helps increase awareness of the signs and symptoms of lung diseases such as COPD as well as how to prevent and treat the disease. The program supports evidence-based care from healthcare providers and offers a downloadable COPD Healthcare Provider Toolkit. The resources through this program are available for patients and providers alike.

While bringing quality treatment to COPD patients can be tough given the restraints of rural America, the American Lung Association is here to help.

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