"If you’ve met one rural hospital, you’ve met just one."
It’s a phrase that is often used to emphasize the unique challenges and opportunities facing rural hospitals. It’s a favorite of Michelle Rathman, the host of the Rural Matters podcast, which is partnering with the Center for Optimizing Rural Health (CORH) on a four-part miniseries about rural hospitals and CORH’s Rural Hospital Assistance Program.
In the first episode Nancy Dickey, MD, CORH’s principal investigator and Texas A&M Rural and Community Health Institute’s executive director, was joined by David Walker, president of George E. Weems Memorial Hospital in Apalachicola, Fla.
When Weems joined the Rural Hospital Assistance Program, its situation was tenuous.
“Our finances were low, CEOs were fluctuating frequently, and the Franklin County commission had to decide what to do with the hospital – whether they should keep it as a critical access hospital or reduce it to an emergency room-only facility,” said Walker. “Our partnership with CORH helped bring Weems to another level of sustainability.”
CORH takes an individualized approach to each hospital, and Weems was no different.
“Often rural hospitals don’t know where to start so we help them take a deep breath and prioritize,” said Dr. Dickey. “It’s kind of like treating a patient in the clinic with a chronic illness — you have to pick an intervention that will help them see measurable progress.”
For Weems, CORH helped the county board understand the pros and cons of the choices it faced and offered financial consultants who could identify fresh opportunities or the most threatening challenges.
“CORH let us know that we were not alone,” said Walker. “They helped us pinpoint our losses and keep doors open.”
CORH develops programs to solve the most pressing challenges expressed by the more than 150 hospitals it has worked with over the past few years. Hospitals utilize one-on-one coaching, while appreciating the ability to learn from other hospitals.
In the second episode Dr. Dickey was joined by Adam Willmann, the CEO and President of Goodall-Witcher Healthcare System in Clifton, Texas, which used a CORH webinar and facilitated networking to inform the system’s vaccination program.
“Early this year when rural hospitals were starting to get vaccines, we talked on a CORH webinar about how we vaccinate effectively, efficiently and quickly,” said Willmann. “It included administrators from every walk of life and corner of the country, and we took snippets from everybody and put together a plan that met our needs.”
Dr. Dickey and Willmann discussed other challenges brought on by the pandemic, including recruiting and retaining staff and keeping up with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. They shared new insights that must be considered in the future, such as the fact that when many urban hospitals faced capacity with COVID-19 patients, rural hospitals often had to treat more medically complex patients who normally would be transferred to another facility. Staff at these rural hospitals discovered that they had the skills to provide care for complex patients closer to their home.
As the pandemic subsides, rural hospitals will need to think about how they hang on to these experiences and recover from the public health emergency.
“I think any rural hospital would benefit from CORH assistance,” said Willmann. “We will continue to go to these webinars and access the training because there’s always room for improvement. If rural hospitals are going to stay viable we have to continue changing and be more aggressive and progressive. That that’s what the Center for Optimizing Rural Health really does for us. It just keeps us on our toes and keep pushing forward.”
Subscribe to Rural Matters to hear episodes three and four of the series, when Dr. Dickey will be joined by Jon Rains, the CEO of Atoka County Medical Center and Pamela Tillman, Administrator of LifeBrite Community Hospital of Stokes.
Applications for Year 4 opened on June 1. To learn more, click here.