Who Are The Medically Underserved?

Despite recent drops, North Carolina’s uninsured rate remains among the highest in the nation, at 15.6 percent. Without proper insurance, health care costs can become expensive and unaffordable, deterring many people from seeking the care they need. A recent article by the News and Observer illustrates this problem, telling the story of a hard-working man who after being laid off was forced to live in his car. No longer able to afford health insurance, he didn’t pursue the care he needed and developed poor vision brought on by an undiagnosed case of diabetes. After two car accidents and the eventual loss of his car, he finally received care from a local free clinic, but it was too late. His vision worsened over time, making him unable to ever drive or work again.

Many people in North Carolina, like the man in this story, are often referred to as medically underserved, because they face numerous barriers to receiving preventative health care or treatment for existing conditions. While being uninsured is one of the major roadblocks, being medically underserved can arise from a variety of other factors, including place of residence, transportation, age, race, ethnicity and even language. Most importantly, these barriers can have a detrimental impact on their overall health and well-being.

To get a better understanding of those who are medically underserved, we asked our staff here at the Foundation for Health Leadership & Innovation to describe the population from their own experience. One staff member described the population broadly as “those who are overlooked and fall through the cracks of our world,” while another defined them as simply, “anybody that does not have access to affordable quality healthcare.” It was also pointed out that for this population, “the already complex healthcare system often becomes more complicated” and “focusing on a lack of personal responsibility among this population does not address the root causes.”

It is important to note that the population that faces these barriers is not small. Across the United States, thousands of communities and populations are considered to be medically underserved. Additionally, more than half of North Carolina is considered a medically underserved area. Because of this, it is vital that we increase the level of attention paid to these groups when it comes to healthcare. As another staff member pointed out, these individuals “deserve to have seamless access and get valued and treated in a system that treats the whole person.”

That’s why at the Foundation, our staff are committed to assuring quality health care for these underserved populations through the work of their programs. Rural Forward NC works hard to support providers, local leaders, organizations, and coalitions that are focused upon improving the lives and conditions of these underserved communities, while the Center or Excellence for Integrated Care helps guides sites in using evidence based practices when working with this population. Additionally, the NC Oral Health Collaborative works to directly address the causes of barriers to oral health care access by looking at the policies that create these inequities, and Practice Sights develops data that is used to both identify and address issues affecting provider retention in the areas where these populations reside.

So whether it’s with oral health, mental health, or basic health needs, it’s clear we all can play a part in ensuring that those who are medically underserved have an equal chance of receiving the affordable, quality healthcare they deserve. As leaders and mentors of the healthcare world, if we don’t step up and take initiative to care for and guide this population, who will?