A recent study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has important implications for residents of North Carolina’s rural communities. It found that these residents are seeing more deaths from potentially preventable chronic diseases and unintentional injury than their urban counterparts.

Forty-one percent of North Carolina’s residents, about 4 million people, live in rural areas.

“It’s obviously disturbing, given the fact that we’re not just seeing disparities,” Maggie Sauer, director of the state’s Office of Rural Health, told the nonprofit North Carolina Health News earlier this month. “We’re seeing higher numbers of people in rural communities who are suffering and dying at a higher rate than some of our other communities.”

The CDC looked at five leading causes of death — cancer, chronic lung disease, stroke, heart disease and unintentional injuries, including fatal drug overdoses — and found the risks increased in rural communities. The gap has been growing over the last decade, and increases even more for minority populations.

This won’t be surprising to many. We’ve known for some time that our rural areas have higher rates of drug and alcohol use, suicide and teen births.

Among the challenges facing our rural neighbors that make the picture more dire are the opioid crisis — exacerbated by decreased economic opportunities — lack of health insurance and the closing of rural medical facilities, which often creates medical deserts that put them some distance from adequate health care.

Eleven rural hospitals in North Carolina have closed since 2005, according to UNC-Chapel Hill’s Sheps Center for Health Policy Research.

People without health insurance are much less likely to receive preventative care and more likely to skip procedures that could detect disease.

“If you don’t have access you’re not gonna get your prostate checked, you’re not gonna get your PSA done, you’re not gonna get that mammogram if you have a lump,” Pamela Tripp, CEO of CommWell Health, said.

It’s in light of these facts that the state Senate is sitting on Medicaid expansion, which could extend health coverage to an estimated 600,000 North Carolinians.

There is hope for our rural neighbors, in the form of innovations like telemedicine and telepsychiatry. And some rural communities have learned how to pull together. Alleghany, Henderson and Madison counties have insitituted programs that emphasize primary care that have won praise from researchers.

“The real asset that rural communities have is partnership, is collaboration, (and a) cultural philosophy about helping your neighbor,” Sauer said.

A lot is made of the rural/urban divide, especially when it comes to politics. But while we often boost the City of Arts and Innovation, we’re not unaware of the benefits of life in the more rural counties that surround us. We have no desire to see our neighbors suffer, and every reason to want their health concerns to be treated seriously. To a large degree, we’re all in this together; more resources need to be provided to our rural neighbors.

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