A qualitative study of rural healthcare providers’ views of social, cultural, and programmatic barriers to healthcare access

Nicholas C. Coombs, Duncan G. Campbell, James Caringi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


Background: Ensuring access to healthcare is a complex, multi-dimensional health challenge. Since the inception of the coronavirus pandemic, this challenge is more pressing. Some dimensions of access are difficult to quantify, namely characteristics that influence healthcare services to be both acceptable and appropriate. These link to a patient’s acceptance of services that they are to receive and ensuring appropriate fit between services and a patient’s specific healthcare needs. These dimensions of access are particularly evident in rural health systems where additional structural barriers make accessing healthcare more difficult. Thus, it is important to examine healthcare access barriers in rural-specific areas to understand their origin and implications for resolution. Methods: We used qualitative methods and a convenience sample of healthcare providers who currently practice in the rural US state of Montana. Our sample included 12 healthcare providers from diverse training backgrounds and specialties. All were decision-makers in the development or revision of patients’ treatment plans. Semi-structured interviews and content analysis were used to explore barriers–appropriateness and acceptability–to healthcare access in their patient populations. Our analysis was both deductive and inductive and focused on three analytic domains: cultural considerations, patient-provider communication, and provider-provider communication. Member checks ensured credibility and trustworthiness of our findings. Results: Five key themes emerged from analysis: 1) a friction exists between aspects of patients’ rural identities and healthcare systems; 2) facilitating access to healthcare requires application of and respect for cultural differences; 3) communication between healthcare providers is systematically fragmented; 4) time and resource constraints disproportionately harm rural health systems; and 5) profits are prioritized over addressing barriers to healthcare access in the US. Conclusions: Inadequate access to healthcare is an issue in the US, particularly in rural areas. Rural healthcare consumers compose a hard-to-reach patient population. Too few providers exist to meet population health needs, and fragmented communication impairs rural health systems’ ability to function. These issues exacerbate the difficulty of ensuring acceptable and appropriate delivery of healthcare services, which compound all other barriers to healthcare access for rural residents. Each dimension of access must be monitored to improve patient experiences and outcomes for rural Americans.

Original languageEnglish
Article number438
JournalBMC Health Services Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2022


  • Access to healthcare
  • Qualitative methods
  • Rural health


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