By John Parks, Director of Business Development, Avera eCARE
If you live in a small town there are four important reasons you should be begging your hospital leadership to invest in telemedicine.
No two rural hospitals are alike but over the last few years, a few commonalities have surfaced. Rural independent hospitals face staffing challenges and seek a spark to change their financial dynamics. Many also have innovative executives at the helm. Here are four ways that you can show those leaders that hospital-focused telemedicine is an important ally for their rural communities.
1. Access to Care
According to the Census Bureau definition, rural areas cover 97% of the country. That’s a lot of people that rely on rural hospitals for their healthcare. Collaborative, hospital-focused telemedicine is good for rural communities because access to that care is a big concern. There are severe nationwide physician shortages, and these rural facilities are typically the ones left without.
Physicians don’t want to practice in isolation anymore. So, when local providers and nurses can reach out virtually to emergency, behavioral health or internal medicine specialists – or hospital trained pharmacists – at Avera eCARE, they get the chance to collaborate and practice in unison with some of the most experienced telemedicine providers in the world who will work with them on the toughest cases walking in the door – trauma, heart attacks, strokes – everything from second opinions on an unfamiliar rash, to snake bites, to major motor vehicle accidents.
In addition, many of these services can cover back-up call shifts or nights and weekends, giving the local care team the chance to recharge and enjoy the beauty that rural living can provide.
These services can bolster nursing retention as well, by helping out during busy shifts and assisting with documentation, arranging patient transport, and reaching out to the receiving facilities to find beds for patients in need of transfer. All of these benefits provide a stronger work-life harmony that rural health care workers desperately need
2. Keeping Patients Local
Keeping patients from having to travel for care is another reason rural hospitals seek telemedicine support. Virtual emergency physicians avoid costly transfers by assisting with things like ruling out STEMIs or reducing dislocated shoulders. Hospitalist telemedicine supports all providers, giving confidence in themselves and their colleagues when it comes to admitting patients, rather than transferring them. Take Wagner Memorial Hospital, in Wagner, S.D., for example. With the assistance of both emergency and hospitalist telemedicine services, their daily average rose from 1.89 to 3.69 patients per day, equating to significant revenues increases for their facility. “I truly believe that it’s the additional support received from eCARE Hospitalist which increased the comfort level of both our APPs and Chief Medical Officer, and in turn created the increased Average Daily Census results Wagner Memorial is experiencing,” said Bryan Slaba, CEO of Wagner Memorial Hospital.
Patients appreciate not having to travel to seek care as well, sometimes avoiding trips of up to two or more hours to the nearest regional facility.
3. Financial Stability
It is said that the best time to think about sustainability is before you are forced to do so.
Due to increasing financial pressures, more rural hospitals are in financial trouble than ever before. Since 2005, 180 rural hospitals have closed. According to a report from the Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform, in 22 states, 25 percent or more of rural hospitals were at immediate risk of closure.
With that bleak picture painted clearly for administrators, they are seeking ways to save and to increase revenues and margins. These telemedicine services help hospitals remain financially sound. Besides increased revenues stemming from increased admissions, the various telemedicine services also positively impact finances by giving hospitals flexibility in how they staff their facility.
Often times, that means tapping in to readily available APPs and supplementing those teams with virtual access to board certified emergency and internal medicine providers who are available 24/7. In many states, these virtual emergency services can serve as back-up call in the ER, and that alone has saved independent hospitals upwards of $600,000 to $1 million per year, while enhancing access to specialists at the same time. That savings allows for other innovation. That’s a good combination for communities in need.
4. Economic Development
Every resident of a rural town has an interest in the economic development boost that a viable hospital provides. In these communities, the hospital is typically one of the larger employers, typically responsible for a couple hundred jobs. They are also tangentially responsible for much of the other economic development in that area. According to a story on NPR called Rethinking Rural Health Solutions To Save Patients And Communities, “They provide jobs and contribute to a town’s economy. For many citizens in small-town America, losing the local hospital would threaten the livelihood of the town and its people.”
Take for example Bowie, Texas, a small town that lost their hospital to closure in 2015. As noted in a Texas Observer article, The Doctor is Out, when the hospital closed, the fallout was immediate. “There were 130 layoffs, a sizeable loss for a small town.” “The loss of hospital-related business also took a large bite out of sales tax revenue — a blow to a town already struggling with a downturn in the oil business.” Within weeks, several houses near the hospital went on the market. “The city lost $300,000 in sales tax revenue in the four months after the closure.” It’s not just the employees and patients that suffer when a rural hospital closes… the effects reverberate throughout the entire town. That’s a strong reason to encourage your leaders to explore telemedicine in your facility. It’s a force multiplier. A perfect way to do more with less.