This paper describes a functional approach to the definition of rural populations for purposes of rural health care research. Rather than define "rural" directly, we created a definition of urban populations and our research target became the non-urban component. Using Geographic Information Systems technology, isochrones (drivetime zones) were created that attached suburban populations to urban centres and mapped non-urban populations into rural hospital catchment areas. For population-based analyses, we have proposed a methodology for constructing catchment areas attached to Rural, Regional and Metropolitan services. We have developed a model for calculation of travel time for patients required to travel for care. We successfully applied these methodologies to the disparate regions of rural Alberta and Northern Ontario in 2 papers that investigated the delivery of rural surgical services. This methodology represents a durable and portable designation of "rural" with potential for research applications in other areas of health research. By defining "urban" rather than "rural," we avoided many of the methodological conundrums in this research field.
Contrast alternative health delivery systems and the use of differently trained physician providers in the supply of surgical services to rural residents in 2 Canadian provinces.
Four surgical procedures (carpal tunnel release, inguinal herniorrhaphy, appendectomy and cholecystectomy) provided to rural residents of Alberta and Northern Ontario were identified between 1997/98 and 2001/02. Surgical staff were identified as specialists or non-specialists. Rural populations were mapped into the catchment areas of rural acute care facilities. Rural surgical programs were characterized by the level of surgical service available locally.
Alberta and Northern Ontario have a similar number of rural surgical programs staffed by Canadian-certified general surgeons (10 and 12, respectively). However, Alberta has 27 smaller rural surgical programs staffed by non-specialist surgeons and Northern Ontario has only 4. These non-specialist surgeons play a significant role in Alberta, often in collaboration with specialist surgeons. In Northern Ontario the non-specialist surgeons play a minor role. The small rural surgical programs in Northern Ontario that are staffed by specialist surgeons are significantly more successful in retaining the local surgical caseload compared with similar programs in Alberta.
The principal differences between Alberta and Northern Ontario in the delivery of rural surgical services are the greater number of small rural surgical programs in Alberta, and the substantial role of non-specialist surgical staff in these programs.
To investigate whether utilization rates of common surgical procedures are different between urban and rural Canadians in 2 provinces and to examine whether these rates are influenced by the presence and scope of local surgical programs and by the availability of different physician providers.
Utilization rates for 8 common surgical procedures (appendectomy, carpal tunnel release, closed hip fracture repair, rectal cancer surgery, joint replacement, thyroidectomy, unilateral or bilateral inguinal herniorrhaphy, and cholecystectomy) were identified in rural Alberta and rural Northern Ontario from hospital discharge records. Rural populations were characterized by 3 types of communities, based on availability of local physician and diagnostic resources. Travel time for consultations and surgery were estimated. Age-sex-adjusted rates, their standard errors, and 95% confidence intervals (CIs) were calculated for the purpose of comparisons among residents' locations using the method of direct standardization. To test a possible association between travel times and utilization rates, hierarchical linear and nonlinear modelling was used to analyze a 2-level model, with patients nested within rural hospital catchment areas in the province of Alberta.
Utilization rates for appendectomy, cholecystectomy and carpal tunnel release are significantly greater for rural populations compared with urban in both Alberta and Northern Ontario. Rural Northern Ontario had higher rates of utilization than rural Alberta for carpal tunnel release and cholecystectomy (p