Background: The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), works to ensure accessible, quality, health care for the nation's underserved populations, especially those who are medically, economically, or geographically vulnerable. HRSA-designated primary care Health Professional Shortage Areas (pcHPSAs) provide a vital measure by which to identify underserved populations and prioritize locations and populations lacking access to adequate primary and preventive health care-the foundation for advancing health equity and maintaining health and wellness for individuals and populations. However, access to care is a complex, multifactorial issue that involves more than just the number of health care providers available, and pcHPSAs alone cannot fully characterize the distribution of medically, economically, and geographically vulnerable populations.
Methods and findings: In this county-level analysis, we used descriptive statistics and multiple correspondence analysis to assess how HRSA's pcHPSA designations align geographically with other established markers of medical, economic, and geographic vulnerability. Reflecting recognized social determinants of health (SDOH), markers included demographic characteristics, race and ethnicity, rates of low birth weight births, median household income, poverty, educational attainment, and rurality. Nationally, 96 percent of U.S. counties were either classified as whole county or partial county pcHPSAs or had one or more established markers of medical, economic, or geographic vulnerability in 2017, suggesting that at-risk populations were nearly ubiquitous throughout the nation. Primary care HPSA counties in HHS Regions 4 and 6 (largely lying within the southeastern and south central United States) had the most pervasive and complex patterns in population risk.
Conclusion: HHS Regions displayed unique signatures with respect to SDOH markers. Descriptive and analytic findings from our work may help inform health workforce and health care planning at all levels, and, by illustrating both the complexity of and differences in county-level population characteristics in pcHPSA counties, our findings may have relevance for strengthening the delivery of primary care and addressing social determinants of health in areas beset by provider shortages.