Rural Hospital Closures Extend Ambulance Transportation Times, Study Finds

Rural hospital closures are becoming more common, and that’s leading to longer response times for ambulances to reach the scene of an emergency, according to a recent study.

The researchers analyzed data from the National Emergency Medical Services Information System to compare ambulance times before and after rural hospital closures.

Katherine Miller, a public health PhD candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, led the study.

“We looked at the amount of time someone would have to wait until an ambulance arrived to get them, as well as the time it takes from once the ambulance has arrived at the scene how long does it take to get to the hospital,” Miller said.

What they found is that in the year after a closure in a rural or wilderness zip code, average ambulance transportation times increased by about four and a half minutes. And the total time between a 911 call and arriving at a hospital went up by nine and a half minutes. 

“There is a compelling body of existing evidence that suggests that this time spent in an ambulance, this pre-hospital time, may be associated with worse patient outcomes,” Miller said.

According to a health services research center at UNC-Chapel Hill, more than 160 rural hospitals have closed across the country since 2005. The center documents only two rural hospital closures in the Mountain West over the last 15 years, but it points out that four more are currently at risk.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center For the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.