Many older Americans are too far from their neurological care, study finds

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A recent study conducted by Michigan Medicine has shed light on a significant challenge faced by older Americans, especially those living in rural areas, when seeking specialized neurological care.

The study, which focused on individuals covered by Medicare, revealed that a considerable number of these seniors have to travel extensively to consult with neurologists.

In 2018, the research found that nearly 18% of these patients traveled more than 50 miles one way to see a neurologist.

For those who had to embark on these long journeys, the average distance was 81 miles, translating to about a 90-minute trip.

This is in stark contrast to those living closer to such specialists, who traveled an average of 13 miles, taking around 22 minutes.

Dr. Brian C. Callaghan, a key researcher in the study, highlighted the impact of these lengthy trips on patient care.

He noted that the distance makes it difficult for patients to return for necessary follow-up appointments, which is crucial in managing neurological conditions effectively.

In fact, the study observed that people who had to travel far were 26% less likely to return for a second visit compared to those who traveled shorter distances.

Interestingly, nearly one-third of the patients chose to bypass closer neurologists to seek care further away, and about 7% crossed state lines in search of specialized treatment.

This behavior indicates a preference for specific specialists or perhaps a perceived difference in the quality of care available closer to home versus further away.

The issue is more pronounced for individuals suffering from conditions like ALS (a motor neuron disease) or nervous system cancers, who frequently need to travel long distances for their care.

Potential Solutions and Looking Ahead

The findings from this study underscore the urgent need for more accessible neurological care, particularly in underserved rural areas.

One potential solution that has gained traction is the use of telemedicine, which has been significantly expanded due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Online doctor visits could help bridge the gap by providing expert consultations without the need for long-distance travel.

Another approach is to enhance the training of local general practitioners. This would empower them to manage more straightforward neurological cases, thereby reducing the need for referrals to distant specialists.

The implications of long travel distances go beyond inconvenience. Previous research in cancer care suggests that such barriers can delay timely access to necessary treatments and adversely affect patients’ quality of life.

The Michigan Medicine study aims to further explore how these travel-related challenges impact long-term health outcomes and to evaluate whether telemedicine has effectively mitigated these issues.

Funded by the American Academy of Neurology, this study is part of a broader initiative to improve healthcare accessibility for those with complex health conditions requiring specialized care.

As the research progresses, it may provide more insights into how to effectively support rural populations in accessing the neurological care they need without the burden of extensive travel.

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