Compared to those living in urban areas, stroke patients treated at rural hospitals were one third less likely to undergo a procedure to remove a blood clot that caused the stroke and were more likely to die of stroke before leaving the hospital.

Researchers examined national data on almost 800,000 adults hospitalised after a stroke between 2012 and 2017.

In their paper, published in the American Stroke Association’s Stroke journal, the researchers warn that this urban-rural divide may be getting worse. This gap, the paper states, could be caused by the slower take-up of newer treatments and technologies, and because rural hospitals are less well-resourced and have poorer access to specialist care. Rural hospitals may also be more likely to lack specialised clinical support, such as dedicated stroke units.

Other causes for poorer stroke care could be a lack of clinical expertise in urban areas, due to difficulties attracting and retaining experienced staff, and poorer access to emergency services and longer responses to emergency calls due to distance.

“The lack of access to specialists is often a limiting factor in adequate care for rural stroke patients, and in this case, that could mean a neurologist to guide the initial care, an interventional neurologist or radiologist to do a procedure, or having a neurosurgeon available for backup in case of any complications,” said Gmerice Hammond, author of the study and a cardiology fellow at Washington University School of Medicine.

“Clinicians need to work to improve access to high-quality stroke care for individuals in rural areas. That means partnerships between hospitals for rapid transfer, as well as telehealth when appropriate. And clinical leaders and policymakers should prioritize improving access, care and outcomes for stroke in rural communities.”

The study had some limitations, including a lack of data on the severity of patients’ strokes, or factors that would determine whether a patient received advanced therapies, sich as the size of the clot and where it is located.

Karen Joynt Maddox, senior author of the study and assistant professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine, calls the differences in care, and the lack of improvement over the five-year period, ‘striking’.

“Future studies using more detailed clinical data will be important to follow up on our findings and to determine why patients in rural areas aren’t receiving advanced therapies. Is it because their stroke severity is different? Or because delays in getting to the hospital meant they weren’t eligible by the time they arrived?

“Those questions can’t be answered with administrative data, but they’re very important to look into so that we can develop effective solutions.”