Viewpoint: Chronic heart, lung disease is growing threat for rural areas

The COVID-19 pandemic is overshadowing an equally deadly health threat for much of rural America, a  rise of chronic heart and lung disease, three healthcare leaders wrote in a Jan. 9 op-ed for The Washington Post.

The article's authors are:

  • Haider Warraich, MD, a cardiologist at the VA Boston Healthcare System, Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston.
  • Robert Califf, MD, a cardiologist and former FDA commissioner who now serves as head of medical strategy and policy at Verily Life Sciences.
  • Sarah Cross, a social worker and PhD candidate at Duke University's School of Public Policy in Durham, N.C.

Americans living in rural areas are at greater risk of death from heart and lung disease compared to those living in urban areas, researchers said. In a May 2020 JAMA study, researchers found this disparity for heart disease deaths has nearly doubled between 1999 and 2017. Rural Americans also have a 61 percent higher chance of dying from lung disease than people living in urban areas, according to a separate study published in August 2020.

"The rising toll of chronic disease in rural America is not a failure of medical technology — it is a failure of social and economic policy that makes it difficult for many people to access quality healthcare," the article's authors wrote.

They argue that expanding Medicaid in Southern states may be the most effective short-term solution for the region's large chronic disease toll. The U.S. must also address severe physician shortages in rural America and work to equally expand telehealth access to help improve chronic disease management, among other actions, the leaders said.

"COVID-19 could land a fatal blow on patients and healthcare systems already dealing with chronic heart and lung diseases. Rural Americans have been struggling for many years, and their poor health also has widespread economic and political fallout that needs to be [addressed] urgently," the authors stated.

To view the full op-ed, click here.

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