Months into the COVID-19 pandemic, it became clear that the U.S. healthcare systems and its many essential workers were going to need help.
The battle against COVID-19 was especially grim for the nation’s rural hospitals, many who were already fighting closure before the global pandemic reached America’s heartland. Eventually, that much needed help arrived mid-Spring 2020, in the form of the CARES Act.
In the months that followed, Alan Morgan, CEO of National Rural Health Association says that the federal government has done an excellent job stepping in for rural providers disproportionately affected by the pandemic. But even with relief, many hurdles still remain for these critical healthcare providers.
In this two-part series, we provide an overview of what Morgan and NRHA believe will be the four biggest challenges facing rural hospitals in a post COVID-19 era.
The first part of this article focuses on fortifying the rural healthcare workforce and a revised rural payment model, while the second portion, publishing next week, will cover prioritizing rural healthcare worker vaccination and improving rural technology infrastructures.
“Finding ways to attract and sustain a skilled rural healthcare workforce is dominant issue that has only been amplified by COVID-19,” states Morgan. He believes this is a critical issue that requires both a local and federal response.
To begin addressing this issue there needs to be an emphasis on developing what Morgan calls a “rural pipeline.” A rural pipeline would work by getting local, rural students interested in healthcare and practicing in or around their hometowns. Along with attracting students to work in rural areas following graduation, the pipeline would also include elements designed to address the high cost of a clinical education.
Some other considerations for a rural healthcare professional pipeline might include, local hospital internships, scholarships for rural residency training programs, and the expansion of a national health service core.
At the time of this interview, not one rural hospital had closed in the 2021 calendar year—something that has not happened in over a decade. However, Morgan states that “in 2020 more rural hospitals closed in that year than in any time in the last two decades.” As established community centers, this troubling statistic further highlights the relevant need of keeping rural hospitals open. Like many businesses that fail, at the root of this problem is the ability to sustain an operational revenue.
“CARES Act funding from the federal government allowed rural hospitals to better align their services with addressing a global pandemic…making sure they are equipped,” states Morgan. But at the same time, he also notes that the pandemic indicated current payment models in the rural context are not aligned with what they need to be.
To ensure operational efficiency, effective care, and ultimately sustainability, rural hospitals must be enabled to accomplish what they are designed to do—provide primary care and general surgery services to the community. A big portion of solidifying this effort would mean pivoting away from a volume-based payment model to a value-based payment model.
Morgan also sees a purposeful expansion of telehealth into the rural setting as important for bringing specialty care services into rural communities, as well as an opportunity to build upon and enhance their service lines.
He goes on to add the caveat that while telehealth expansion can be a boon to rural healthcare, it needs to be applied only where it makes sense. Telehealth must not come to rural healthcare at the expense of creating competition between remote and local clinicians.
Stay Tuned for Part II – Vaccine Hesitancy and Technology Infrastructures
Make sure you return to our blog to catch the last half of this interview with Alan Morgan of NRHA. Part two will cover the importance of vaccinating rural healthcare workers and how technology can open a doorway to improved rural healthcare services.
MEDHOST is proud to partner with NRHA and do their part in helping ensure the viability of healthcare in rural America. To learn more about the various ways MEDHOST helps address challenges in both the rural and community hospital settings, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1.800.383.6278.