Oct. 7 (UPI) -- Nearly one in four households in rural areas of the United States were unable to get treatment for serious medical problems this summer because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a survey released Wednesday.
The survey of more than 3,400 U.S. adults, conducted between July 1 and Aug. 3, also found that 40% of rural households could not find a doctor willing to see them as the new new coronavirus spread in their local area.
"During a time of record-setting growth in new COVID-19 cases across rural America, rural communities are facing distinct challenges handling the coronavirus outbreak due to long-standing systemic health and social inequities," the authors of the report wrote.
"When it comes to healthcare, the coronavirus outbreak has dramatically affected delivery, with systems facing disruptions, delays and deferrals in care for many patients," they said.
Even before the pandemic, access to healthcare in rural areas across the country was an issue, due at least in part to hospital and clinic closures, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
In addition, people living in rural areas tend to be older, sicker and poorer, and are less likely to have health insurance, data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates.
For their report, the researchers surveyed 3,454 U.S. adults 18 years and older, 543 of whom were living in rural areas.
Among these rural respondents, 24% said they were unable to get medical care for serious problems during the pandemic, the data showed.
More than half the households who reported being unable to access care indicated that the suffered "harmful health consequences" as a result, according to the report.
Forty-six percent rural respondents also said they could not schedule a healthcare appointment during the hours they needed, while roughly 25% reported that the nearest healthcare location was "too far or too difficult to get to," the survey found.
In addition, 39% of the rural respondents reported they could not afford health care, and 12% said they could not find a doctor who accepted their health insurance, the researchers found.
"In a period where access to medical care is critical for many people, it is of serious concern that so many in rural America with serious medical conditions could not be seen," Robert J. Blendon, co-director of the survey and a professor of public health at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said in a statement.
"In this case the COVID-19, situation created a major barrier for rural Americans to be seen by a physician or hospital. It is clear that in an epidemic, we have to find better ways to manage access to care for people who need it," Blendon said.