Hitting the road to improve rural health

Jul 24, 2013

It’s not easy for rural Michigan residents to access specialized health services. Clinics are often located in bigger cities, which can be a miles away, or even in a neighboring state. However, a mobile hearing aid clinic in southwest Michigan is experimenting with a way to solve the problem.

The large teal bus rolls into Allegan and Niles once a week. On the outside is a picture of a smiling young girl and her mother near the words, “Better Hearing Now!” It’s about the size of the Greyhound but the interior looks nothing like a passenger bus.

Inside, hearing specialist Tony Meyer shows off the waiting room. It boasts a couch and a TV, along with coffee and cookies for patients. Just behind this front area is the fitting theater. The bus, a project of Professional Hearing Services in St. Joseph, is equipped with tools for conducting hearing exams and fixing hearing aids. It hit the road in December.

Dr. Gyl Kasewurm, founder of the St. Joseph clinic, says the bus is a way to reach potential patients in areas farther-out.

“We had a professional company do demographic studies to find out where the needs were of people. Since we live in a small rural community, there are many outlying locations. At our main office in St. Joe, we get patients from 60 miles away,” Kasewurm said.

Walter, a Niles resident, doesn’t live quite that far away. But it is a trek for him to get out to the main office. He says the bus is a lot closer.

“It’s just a matter of probably three miles. Going to St. Joe would probably be 26 miles at least,” he said.

Walter requested that his last name be withheld for medical privacy reasons. He started looking for hearing care a few months ago, after his wife pointed out that he was struggling to keep up with conversation.

“In restaurants, at the bowling alley, I didn’t even hear half of what they said,” Walter said. When he answered questions, his wife would tell him he wasn’t even close to responding correctly.

Walter prefers to stay local when looking for health service providers. But he has to cross state lines into Indiana to visit other medical specialists. He sees a primary care physician out of stat as well, in an effort to make it easy for doctors to send his medical records back and forth.

John Barnas, executive director for the Michigan Center for Rural Health, says traveling for care is common for rural and small town residents.

“A rural area potentially has a general surgeon to take care of a knee problem or an elbow problem, but once you’re going to get into heart conditions that need surgery, you have to go to a tertiary care hospital in an urban area,” Barnas said, by way of example. “Transportation can always be an issue for certain populations. If you don’t have reliable transportation and there’s not a good county bus system, then access to primary care [and] specialty care can be an issue,” he added.

The Center has a recruitment program to help attract recent medical school graduates to rural areas. Crystal Barter, the health systems development coordinator, says staff also let professionals know about jobs in these outlying areas through an online database. It’s another strategy for bringing health care providers to their rural patients, instead of having patients travel to receive care. Walter, who uses his hearing aid about 13 hours a day, says having a hearing specialist come to his area is convenient. The hearing aids have made an impact on his life.

“It’s all [those] little things that add up, like birds chirping. I could see them but I couldn’t hear them. That’s the best example I can give of improvement since I’ve got the hearing aids,” he said.