As the executive director of the National Organization of State Offices of Rural Health, I know the challenges faced by rural communities when it comes to access to health care and a host of other services. Distances between cities in these regions are long, and there is often insufficient access to specialty medical care in these regions. For many rural communities, there are not enough primary care physicians to serve the population. This problem will continue to become more severe as these doctors (typically older than the national average) approach retirement, and fewer new doctors locate in rural communities to replace them. In addition, rural hospitals are closing at an alarming rate, leaving residents with fewer options and requiring them to look farther for care.
My members, the fifty State Offices of Rural Health, are tasked with the responsibility to help their individual rural communities improve rural health delivery systems by coordinating rural health activity and making information available to rural residents. Fortunately, general aviation and small aircraft help to connect and aid communities, especially in remote and underserved communities.
I think about one local doctor in Flagstaff who operates his airplane to reach rural communities across northern Arizona on a daily basis to provide medical services to local residents. He works at small hospitals and rural clinics in remote communities and on Navajo, Hopi and other tribal lands. For these remote communities, Dr. Herring helps patients, ranging from routine examinations to chronic disease management and emergency medicine. In Texas, Mike Easley oversees seven small hospitals in frontier counties scattered across the entire state. Driving to these difficult parts of the state takes generally takes two to two and a half times longer than flying, so he uses general aviation to travel to each of them, making it possible to take a more active role in their management.
General aviation also helps in many other ways. Dozens of charitable organizations rely on volunteer pilots to fly patients to specialized medical centers, which are typically concentrated in large cities. One such organization, Wings of Hope, operates within a 600-mile radius of its St. Louis headquarters, flying individuals who live in rural communities to world-class health care at places like the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, and Shriners and Children’s Hospitals in St. Louis — both centers for pediatric health care excellence. Shriners specializes in pediatric orthopedics and Children’s is a national leader in clubfoot treatment. Clubfoot is a birth defect, affecting about one in every thousand children, where feet are turned. If left untreated, it can impede mobility. Treatment requires multiple visits and several young patients throughout the region, especially those from rural communities, travel to St. Louis Children’s for treatment through Wings of Hope. Importantly, Wings of Hope flies all these patients for free for as long as they require care. For some, this means dozens of flights over months — even years — of treatment.
Public health goes far beyond medical care as well. Various state agencies throughout the country help to control the mosquito population and reduce the risk for mosquito-borne illnesses, especially since 2002, when the West Nile Virus became a public health concern. Treating wetland areas to control mosquito populations by aircraft is a vital but often overlooked component of public health.
And in Alaska, one company helps local communities to perform laboratory testing on drinking water to ensure public safety. One key test for a possible indicator of dysentery and typhoid fever requires the water sample arrive at the lab in Anchorage within eight hours of collection. Because of the geography of Alaska and the remoteness of many of the towns and villages, this can only be done by small aircraft.
Many people do not realize the critical role that general aviation plays every day in providing public health services in rural communities across the country. General aviation holds the solution to many of the access-related problems that are faced in providing these services and makes a tangible difference in the lives of rural families every day.
Teryl Eisinger is executive director of the National Organization of State Offices of Rural Health.