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Rural Tri-State counties struggle to bridge health divide, attract medical talent

It’s hard to get to a doctor in Appalachia. It’s harder to attract them in the first place.
Updated: Mar. 17, 2021 at 6:20 PM EDT
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ADAMS COUNTY, Ohio (FOX19) - The health divide is real for Appalachian counties surrounding the Tri-State, where historic disinvestment and dwindling government support has left communities struggling.

That’s never been more true than during the pandemic.

Dr. William Hablitzel is Adams County Health Commissioner. As with many of the nation’s 420 Appalachian counties, Hablitzel says there are aspects of Adams County’s healthcare system that are inferior compared to its metropolitan neighbors in the Tri-State.

That includes, to the detriment of its residents, having enough primary care physicians.

“In Adams County, it’s geographically isolated,” Hablitzel said. “Our communities are separated by many miles, so that physical distance, it’s harder to get in to see a doctor.”

Adams County has been designated as a medically underserved area since the federal designation was created in 1978. It is one of 355 counties in the Appalachian and Delta regions with that grim distinction.

Brown County has shared the same designation since 1982.

Adams County is also federally designated as economically distressed, with a poverty rate of 22.6 percent, as measured from 2014-2018.

That makes life tough, especially during a pandemic, though not everyone has been hit the same.

“My business has went on like I always have,” said Lenny Abbot, a corn and soy beans farmer in Adams County. “It hasn’t really affected me. My crops did good.”

That said, Abbot says he knows of neighbors who have not fared as well.

“I do, I do. I know a family who’s really had it hard,” he said. “He run a garage, and his whole family got [COVID-19.]”

Finding the right doctors to treat the sick is a challenge, as Adams County Regional Medical Center CEO Alan Bird explains.

”All across America, there are hundreds of small hospitals. All of those small hospitals have a very difficult time attracting, not only physicians, but also the very specialized workers like an RN,” Bird said.

But Hablitzel says Adams County’s remoteness is also potentially its biggest selling point.

“This is a beautiful county,” he argued, “and we have a lot of people that come here for the nature, for the ability to get out and walk.”

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