The purpose of this article is to examine the issue of quality of care in rural America and to help others examine this issue in a way that is consistent with the very real challenges faced by rural communities in ensuring the availability of adequate health services. Rural citizens have a right to expect that their local health care meets certain basic standards. Unless rural providers can document that the quality of local health care meets objective external standards, third-party payers might refuse to contract with rural providers, and increasingly sophisticated consumers might leave their communities for basic medical care services. To improve the measurement of health care quality in a rural setting, a number of issues specific to the rural environment must be addressed, including small sample sizes (volume and outcome issues), limited data availability, the ability to define rural health service areas, rural population preferences and the lower priority of formal quality-of-care assessment in shortage areas. Several current health policy initiatives have substantial implications for monitoring and measuring the quality of rural health services. For example, to receive community acceptance and achieve fiscal stability, critical access hospitals (CAHs) must be able to document that the care they provide is at least comparable to that of their predecessor institutions. The expectations for quality assurance activities in CAHs should consider their limited institutional resources and community preferences. As managed care extends from urban areas, there will be an inevitable collision between the ability to provide care and the ability to measure quality. As desirable as it might be to have a national standard for health care quality, this is not an attainable goal. The spectrum and content of rural health care are different from the spectrum and content of care provided in large cities. Accrediting agencies, third-party carriers and health insurance purchasers need to develop rural health care quality standards that are practical, useful and affordable.