One of the many health care-related challenges that Americans living in rural areas face is the staggering rate of hospital closures in recent years. Since 2010, rural hospitals have been closing at a rate of approximately one per month, leaving patients adrift and having to seek care elsewhere. But as a new Politico article illustrates, telehealth and remote monitoring have helped to keep hospital doors open in communities throughout the country—and many of these communities, in turn, have led the way in health care innovation. As Tom Ricketts, who serves as a senior policy fellow at the University of North Carolina’s Sheps Center for Health Services Research, told Politico, rural communities “are under a lot of pressure, but there are rural places you can point to as places you would say, ‘This is how things ought to be done.’”
The Politico piece highlights the case of Idaho’s Lost Rivers Medical Center, a 14-bed facility located in rural Butte County. When the hospital faced the threat of closure several years ago, CEO Brad Huerta raised funds to modernize the facility, which included the purchase of telehealth and remote monitoring equipment. Thanks to this new equipment providing a connection to specialists in large, well-equipped hospitals in more urban areas, patients are able to receive a wide range of quality health care services, from telepsychiatry to trauma care to remote pharmacy consults, without having to drive hundreds of miles. In rural areas like Butte County, by using telehealth technologies, “We can, in effect, bring the provider to the community without physically doing so,” noted Keith Mueller of the Center for Rural Health Policy Analysis. Further, the hospital is one of the area’s biggest employers, helping to bolster the local economy—and thanks to Huerta’s efforts, it is turning a small profit, meaning that the range of services it offers may soon grow.
There will, of course, continue to be challenges for rural communities, as populations continue to decline and the average patients served in community hospitals grow older, sicker, and poorer. As Lost Rivers CEO Huerta told Politico, “Small hospitals like mine are always going to be under the gun. You have to get really creative.” But telehealth has tremendous potential to continue to alleviate these difficulties. Earlier this year (as CTeL reported at the time), a study from NTCA outlined the wide-ranging benefits that telehealth can bring to rural communities, from patients saving time and money to additional dollars being spent locally on lab and pharmacy services. For their part, Lost Rivers’ patients and providers are grateful. As one local resident simply put it, “It would be devastating if we didn’t have our hospital.”