Medical deserts are emerging and expanding across the United States at an alarming rate, impacting both individuals and entire communities. We predicted in 2023 that 85% of US counties will become medical deserts this year. With half of rural hospitals currently operating in the red (up by 7% from last year) and a dozen hospital closures so far in 2024, our grim forecast is unfortunately proving true.

In a medical desert, a significant lack of essential healthcare services makes it difficult or costly for residents to access necessary medical care. Increasing operating costs, loss of insurance coverage, and other factors are causing these deserts to spread in both rural and urban areas. All healthcare ecosystem players must act swiftly and boldly to curb this trend before the healthcare system reaches a point where more preventable tragedies sweep the US.

Access To Care Is Rapidly Drying Up

Compounding factors such as the rise in healthcare bankruptcies, catastrophic cyberattacks, and ongoing disputes between health insurers and healthcare providers are eroding an already tenuous healthcare system. Patients are unwillingly and in many cases unknowingly caught in the crossfire — with vulnerable and historically marginalized communities bearing the worst consequences. Furthermore, medical deserts (usually driven by financial burdens) are on the rise. The harms of this expanding sandscape are widespread, including:

  • Declining life expectancy.
  • Higher risk of pregnancy-related complications.
  • Greater likelihood of medication interruption or cessation.
  • Increasing risk of mental health conditions.
  • Instability for inclusive and culturally responsive care.
  • A growing affordability crisis.

The Only Way Out Of This Mess Is By Working Together

While medical deserts stem from a complex confluence of challenges, there is a way out. Just as key ecosystem players — payers, providers, employers, retailers, and regulators — have each played a role in shaping medical deserts, they can lessen the likelihood of a catastrophe and salvage trust with consumers.

But they must act now. For example, payers can map key provider journeys to eliminate pain points, while providers can use inclusive design practices to make care experiences more inclusive. Employers, retailers, and regulators can partner with payers and providers to address barriers to care or create alternative care possibilities in underserved areas, whether in physical locations or through telemedicine.

To learn more about the rise of medical deserts and what key ecosystem players can do, Forrester clients can read these two new reports:

Clients can also request a guidance session with Arielle Trzcinski and Judy Weader on how to navigate this uncertain terrain. We’re here to help.