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Four Ways Hospitals Can Ride Out Rural Health Care Crisis

Special report addresses national problem

According to a special report from FierceHealthcare, rural health care is experiencing a full-blown crisis. Rural hospitals desperately need more workers, even more so than the health care sector at large, author Zack Budryk contends. In addition, federal funds are at risk in states that failed to expand their Medicaid programs under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. As a result, up to 30 rural hospitals may close in states such as Kentucky and Kansas.

In his report, Budryk discusses four strategies designed to help hospitals ride out the current rural health care crisis.

1. Form Strategic Alliances

Consolidation and alliances are mega-trends within the health care industry, and rural providers are no exception, Budryk says. For example, three rural providers in southwestern Arizona joined forces with the Tucson Medical Center to form the Southern Hospital Alliance. This partnership gives the participants an advantage in negotiating supply and service prices, as well as access to better medical training and information technology, not just from Tucson but from one another.

2. Embrace Innovative Care Solutions

In Budryk’s view, rural hospitals, despite their financial woes, are equal to their urban counterparts in outcomes and ahead in emergency care. With this in mind, he suggests that it might benefit rural providers to examine innovative solutions that work smarter as well as harder. For example, Western Maryland Regional Medical Center, a rural facility, refocused its efforts on preventable care and found the elusive balance between improved outcomes and lower costs, cutting readmissions by 21% year after year while reducing costs by $3.5 million, thanks to a new clinical center. 

3. Increase Recruitment Efforts

Since two of the major problems for rural providers are a shortage of workers and better-equipped, more specialized competition, improved recruitment strategies can kill two birds with one stone, Budryk says. Increased recruitment capabilities are one of the benefits of the Southern Hospital Alliance. Many doctors and specialists are reluctant to work in rural settings, but providing incentives such as practice management assistance helped participants draw top talent in Arizona. Other states have recently expanded programs aimed at enticing doctors to practice in rural settings, as well.

4. Go Bigger, Not Smaller

In the current crusade for health care cutbacks, rural hospitals have been hit particularly hard, and costs of care are a major driver of the rural health care crisis. In light of these issues, expanding services might seem like a counterintuitive solution, but it can be just the boost providers need, Budryk suggests. As an example, he points to Putnam County Memorial Hospital in Unionville, Missouri, which faced a major budget deficit 4 years ago. Reducing staff seemed like the obvious solution, but this would have put the organization at even more of a disadvantage in terms of the care it could provide. Rather than cut back, the hospital decided to go bigger, turning a 10-bed unit into a psychiatric unit and later recruiting specialists in anesthesiology, cardiology, and gynecological services. After the hospital added these new services, its revenues climbed to $22 million, and the average patient volume per day increased from fewer than one to more than 12.

Source: FierceHealthcare; December 15, 2015.

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