When Pungo Hospital, the only emergency health facility in Belhaven, North Carolina, closed its doors earlier this July, barely anyone outside this coastal community took notice. But for the town’s mayor, Adam O’Neal, the shutdown was a matter of life and death.
“Our health and well-being depend on this hospital,” O’Neal said, as he was gearing up for a town council meeting.
Pungo Hospital provided health services to 25,000 people in two of North Carolina’s poorest counties, Beaufort and Hyde. Vidant Health, a nonprofit network that owns hospitals and clinics in eastern North Carolina, decided to replace Pungo with a 24/7 urgent care clinic offering treatment for minor illnesses and non-life threatening injuries. If the clinic cannot serve their needs, Belhaven residents will now have to travel 30 miles to the next closest hospital.
This can be problematic. “If someone is having a stroke, it's probably not good to have another half-hour drive before you can get treatment,” O’Neal said.
But it turns out that Belhaven’s experience is far from unique.
Across the country, many rural hospitals are closing down, according to the National Rural Health Association. In 2013 alone, 14 rural hospitals shut down nationwide, leaving whole communities without quick access to emergency care.