Chronic disease patients' experiences with accessing health care in rural and remote areas: a systematic review and qualitative meta-synthesis.
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BACKGROUND: Rurality can contribute to the vulnerability of people with chronic diseases. Qualitative research can identify a wide range of health care access issues faced by patients living in a remote or rural setting. OBJECTIVE: To systematically review and synthesize qualitative research on the advantages and disadvantages rural patients with chronic diseases face when accessing both rural and distant care. DATA SOURCES: This report synthesizes 12 primary qualitative studies on the topic of access to health care for rural patients with chronic disease. Included studies were published between 2002 and 2012 and followed adult patients in North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. REVIEW METHODS: Qualitative meta-synthesis was used to integrate findings across primary research studies. RESULTS: Three major themes were identified: geography, availability of health care professionals, and rural culture. First, geographic distance from services poses access barriers, worsened by transportation problems or weather conditions. Community supports and rurally located services can help overcome these challenges. Second, the limited availability of health care professionals (coupled with low education or lack of peer support) increases the feeling of vulnerability. When care is available locally, patients appreciate long-term relationships with individual clinicians and care personalized by familiarity with the patient as a person. Finally, patients may feel culturally marginalized in the urban health care context, especially if health literacy is low. A culture of self-reliance and community belonging in rural areas may incline patients to do without distant care and may mitigate feelings of vulnerability. LIMITATIONS: Qualitative research findings are not intended to generalize directly to populations, although meta-synthesis across a number of qualitative studies builds an increasingly robust understanding that is more likely to be transferable. Selected studies focused on the vulnerability experiences of rural dwellers with chronic disease; findings emphasize the patient rather than the provider perspective. CONCLUSIONS: This study corroborates previous knowledge and concerns about access issues in rural and remote areas, such as geographical distance and shortage of health care professionals and services. Unhealthy behaviours and reduced willingness to seek care increase patients' vulnerability. Patients' perspectives also highlight rural culture's potential to either exacerbate or mitigate access issues. PLAIN LANGUAGE SUMMARY: People who live in a rural area may feel more vulnerable--that is, more easily harmed by their health problems or experiences with the health care system. Qualitative research looks at these experiences from the patient's point of view. We found 3 broad concerns in the studies we looked at. The first was geography: needing to travel long distances for health care can make care hard to reach, especially if transportation is difficult or the weather is bad. The second concern was availability of health professionals: rural areas often lack health care services. Patients may also feel powerless in "referral games" between rural and urban providers. People with low education or without others to help them may find navigating care more difficult. When rural services are available, patients like seeing clinicians who have known them for a long time, and like how familiar clinicians treat them as a whole person. The third concern was rural culture: patients may feel like outsiders in city hospitals or clinics. As well, in rural communities, people may share a feeling of self-reliance and community belonging. This may make them more eager to take care of themselves and each other, and less willing to seek distant care. Each of these factors can increase or decrease patient vulnerability, depending on how health services are provided.
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