Structural Factors and Racial/Ethnic Inequities in Travel Times to Acute Care Hospitals in the Rural US South, 2007–2018

Early View Original Scholarship Health Inequities

Policy Points:

  • Policymakers should invest in programs to support rural health systems, with a more targeted focus on spatial accessibility and racial and ethnic equity, not only total supply or nearest facility measures.
  • Health plan network adequacy standards should address spatial access to nearest and second nearest hospital care and incorporate equity standards for Black and Latinx rural communities.
  • Black and Latinx rural residents contend with inequities in spatial access to hospital care, which arise from fundamental structural inequities in spatial allocation of economic opportunity in rural communities of color. Long-term policy solutions including reparations are needed to address these underlying processes.

Context: The growing rate of rural hospital closures elicits concerns about declining access to hospital-based care. Our research objectives were as follows: 1) characterize the change in rural hospital supply in the US South between 2007 and 2018, accounting for health system closures, mergers, and conversions; 2) quantify spatial accessibility (in 2018) for populations most at risk for adverse outcomes following hospital closure—Black and Latinx rural communities; and 3) use multilevel modeling to examine relationships between structural factors and disparities in spatial access to care.

Methods: To calculate spatial access, we estimated the network travel distance and time between the census tract–level population-weighted centroids to the nearest and second nearest operating hospital in the years 2007 and 2018. Thereafter, to describe the demographic and health system characteristics of places in relation to spatial accessibility to hospital-based care in 2018, we estimated three-level (tract, county, state-level) generalized linear models.

Findings: We found that 72 (10%) rural counties in the South had ≥1 hospital closure between 2007 and 2018, and nearly half of closure counties (33) lost their last remaining hospital to closure. Net of closures, mergers, and conversions meant hospital supply declined from 783 to 653. Overall, 49.1% of rural tracts experienced worsened spatial access to their nearest hospital, whereas smaller proportions experienced improved (32.4%) or unchanged (18.5%) access between 2007 and 2018. Tracts located within closure counties had longer travel times to the nearest acute care hospital compared with tracts in nonclosure counties. Moreover, rural tracts within Southern states with more concentrated commercial health insurance markets had shorter travel times to access the second nearest hospital.

Conclusions: Rural places affected by rural hospital closures have greater travel burdens for acute care. Across the rural South, racial/ethnic inequities in spatial access to acute care are most pronounced when travel times to the second nearest open acute care hospital are accounted for.


Planey AM, Planey, DA, Wong S, McLafferty SL, Ko MJ. Milbank Q. 2023;101(5):0515.