The Challenge: Traveling Far for Specialized Care
A study led by Michigan Medicine reveals that older Americans, particularly those living in rural areas, often have to travel long distances to get the specialized care they need for brain and nerve issues.
The researchers focused on folks covered by Medicare, the government health insurance for older people, who went to see a neurologist in 2018.
They found that nearly 18% of these older adults had to travel 50 miles or more one way just for their medical appointment.
What the Long Trips Mean for Patients
Dr. Brian C. Callaghan, a senior member of the research team, pointed out that these long trips can make it tough for patients to go back for follow-up visits.
For people who had to travel far, the average distance was 81 miles and the trip took about 90 minutes. In comparison, those who didn’t have to travel long distances went about 13 miles and spent roughly 22 minutes on the journey.
The study also showed that those who had to make these long trips were often from rural areas or places where there aren’t many specialists in neurology.
People with specific conditions like ALS (a motor neuron disease) or nervous system cancers were also among those who frequently traveled far.
What’s more, nearly one-third of patients passed by a closer neurologist to go even farther, and about 7% even crossed state lines to see a specialist.
Solutions and Future Directions
Given the situation, experts say there’s a real need to figure out better ways to bring this specialized care closer to home for these folks.
One idea is to make greater use of online doctor visits, also known as telemedicine. Another is to provide more support and training to local general-practice doctors so they can handle some of the more straightforward neurology cases themselves.
According to Dr. Chun Chieh (Anna) Lin, who also worked on the study, people who had to travel far were 26% less likely to return for a second visit.
Previous studies in the field of cancer care have shown that long travel distances could lead to delays in getting the right treatment and could even make the quality of life worse for patients.
So, the long journeys could have more serious consequences than we currently understand.
Researchers hope to dig deeper to see exactly how these travel challenges affect patients’ health in the long run.
They’re also interested in finding out whether the increased use of telemedicine due to the COVID-19 pandemic has made it any easier for patients to get the care they need without the long journeys.
The study was funded by the American Academy of Neurology and is part of an ongoing effort to make healthcare more accessible, especially for those who have complex health conditions that require specialized care.
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The research findings can be found in Neurology.
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