Healthcare in the Heartland

Affordable-Care-ActWhen I’m not heads down in data points on how hospitals around the country are going mobile, I spend time volunteering as a clinician with the Rural Health Clinic of the Cumberlands, a free clinic for the underserved community in my neighborhood in Cumberland County, Tennessee. So, the challenges facing rural hospitals and health systems today are both a professional and personal interest of mine.

Today, the majority of STEMI patients – up to 80 percent – are unable to get to a STEMI receiving hospital within 60 minutes. The country’s rural healthcare facilities are critical to delivering care to a number of underserved communities. But with nearly 40 million new patients entering the system under the Affordable Care Act, and smaller community facilities under threat of acquisition by larger health systems, it’s time for rural hospitals to go on the offensive.

Healthcare consolidation is like picking a team in gym class – you don’t want to be the one picked last, you want to be the captain. In most cases, larger health systems take the lead in developing rural outreach strategies to acquire smaller hospitals. Instead, rural hospitals should be proactively forging relationships with larger academic medical centers or heath systems that are aligned with their missions and can provide the best quality of care to their patients. Partnership selection should vary depending on the need to deliver care to specific population sets like cardiology, pediatric and neurology patients. By becoming more sophisticated and proactive about the partnership process, rural community hospitals will gain a sense of power in the relationship. They can also supplement what they don’t do well by partnering with the organizations that do– and that will allow them to deliver better and timelier care at any given moment, rather than trying to stand alone.

In partnering with these larger health systems, rural hospitals also need to leverage technology to “virtualize” clinicians while increasing time at the bedside. For some people, adding more technology to the mix and shifting the focus away from the patient and onto a computer or tablet screen seems to run counter to the idea of providing better care. But when used well, technology can get more physicians at the bedside when needed and improve interactions with patients. And, as clinical collaboration and care extends beyond the four walls of their own facilities, access to both live and historic records and diagnostic-quality data will be critical to ensuring a seamless and successful partnership with larger health systems.

Healthcare has become more competitive than ever and rural hospitals have their work cut out for them. But by becoming more strategic in their partnerships and evolving their technology systems, these facilities will be in a position to thrive and continue to deliver quality care in the heartland.