Rural health networks have the potential to improve health care quality and access. Despite this, the use of network analysis to study rural health networks is limited. The purpose of this study was to use network analysis to understand how a network of rural breast cancer care providers deliver services and to demonstrate the value of this methodology in this research area.Methods
Leaders at 47 Federally Qualified Health Centers and Rural Health Clinics across 10 adjacent rural counties were asked where they refer patients for mammograms or breast biopsies. These clinics and the 22 referral providers that respondents named comprised the network. The network was analyzed graphically and statistically with exponential random graph modeling.Findings
Most (96%, n = 45) of the clinics and referral sites (95%, n = 21) are connected to each other. Two clinics of the same type were 62% less likely to refer patients to the same providers as 2 clinics of different types (OR = 0.38, 95% CI = 0.29–0.50). Clinics in the same county have approximately 8 times higher odds of referring patients to the same providers compared to clinics in different counties (OR = 7.80, CI = 4.57–13.31).Conclusions
This study found that geographic location of resources is an important factor in rural health care providers’ referral decisions and demonstrated the usefulness of network analysis for understanding rural health networks. These results can be used to guide delivery of patient care and strengthen the network by building resources that take location into account.