PLoS One. 2013 Dec 26;8(12):e84826.
BACKGROUND: Specialist physician concentration in urban areas can affect access and quality of care for rural patients. As effective drug treatment for hepatitis C (HCV) becomes increasingly available, the extent to which rural patients needing HCV specialists face access or quality deficits is unknown. We sought to determine the influence of rural residency on access to HCV specialists and quality of liver care.
METHODS: The study used a national cohort of 151,965 Veterans Health Administration (VHA) patients with HCV starting in 2005 and followed to 2009. The VHA's constant national benefit structure reduces the impact of insurance as an explanation for observed disparities. Multivariate cox proportion regression models for each quality indicator were performed.
RESULTS: Thirty percent of VHA patients with HCV reside in rural and highly rural areas. Compared to urban residents, highly rural (HR 0.70, CI 0.65-0.75) and rural (HR 0.96, CI 0.94-0.97) residents were significantly less likely to access HCV specialty care. The quality indicators were more mixed. While rural residents were less likely to receive HIV screening, there were no significant differences in hepatitis vaccinations, endoscopic variceal and hepatocellular carcinoma screening between the geographic subgroups. Of note, highly rural (HR 1.31, CI 1.14-1.50) and rural residents (HR 1.06, CI 1.02-1.10) were more likely to receive HCV therapy. Of those treated for HCV, a third received therapy from a non-specialist provider.
CONCLUSION: Rural patients have less access to HCV specialists, but this does not necessarily translate to quality deficits. The VHA's efforts to improve specialty care access, rural patient behavior and decentralization of HCV therapy beyond specialty providers may explain this contradiction. Lessons learned within the VHA are critical for US healthcare systems restructuring into accountable care organizations that acquire features of integrated systems.
PMID: 24386420 [PubMed - as supplied by publisher]