Tips to address big challenges for community hospitals today

The Washington Post’s recent story of a small-town Tennessee couple, entitled “Urgent needs from head to toe,” spells out in vivid detail some eye-opening realities for many people unable to access care outside of urban areas.

This story explains how Lisa and Stevie Crider arrive at a free clinic in the middle of the night to wait in line for care.

“They packed a plastic bag with what had become their daily essentials after 21 years of marriage: An ice pack for his recurring chest pain. Tylenol for her swollen feet. Peroxide for the abscess in his mouth. Gatorade for her low blood sugar and chronic dehydration,” wrote Eli Saslow in his award-winning article.

For those working in community and critical access hospitals today, this type of situation is a common one.

Closures of rural and critical access hospitals are accelerating. This issue impacts a large swath of the U.S. A map from the University of North Carolina’s Center for Health Services Research shows the distribution of recent rural hospital closures. The map does not include hospitals that changed or dramatically reduced their services.

Add to that the COVID-19 pandemic, which compounds issues already faced by community hospitals – typically defined as those with 250 or fewer beds with an average length of patient stay of 96 hours or less.

This is a period unlike any in my 18 years as an emergency physician and health IT services expert. What will make the difference for community hospitals able to weather this storm?

Below, I offer some advice for a few of the challenges faced by community hospitals today.

Be flexible

Community hospitals that survive and thrive in this period and beyond can easily adapt to new situations.

Our client, Hendrick Health System in Abilene, Texas, is an example of how much flexibility matters.

“Although it was hectic, we’ve prepared and managed a difficult situation, but we have not been immune to economic impact. We saw the volume and corresponding revenue drop by 50 percent in April. As the Texas economy reopens and the curve has been flattened, the volume is expected to increase to 75 percent of pre-COVID-19 levels. The total amount of volume and revenue is not expected to return to pre-COVID-19 levels for more than two years, however, we believe the new normal until then will be between 90-95 percent of revenue over the next 3-20 months,” CEO Brad Holland of Abilene, Texas, said.

In many cases, being flexible has included telehealth as an option for patients. In fact, most patients now expect it. The organizations most successful are the ones that could quickly pivot and offer this to their communities. A lot of these hospitals are the cornerstone of their communities, and the successful ones are the those that understood their role and expanded telehealth platforms to meet patients where they are – at home.

We saw a very quick shift in providing services remotely among many of our clients and have many examples among our client base of organizations that implemented telehealth technology in just a matter to days.

Take advantage of cloud technologies

The benefits of a cloud-deployed electronic health record (EHR) include high availability, rock-solid security, and the ability to focus on care -- not on a room full of servers.

You never have to question if your technology is working with a cloud-deployed EHR. You should partner with a vendor who can provide:

  • A cost-effective, industry-leading platform
  • A deployment model that is easily managed
  • An implementation and deployment led by experts to ensure success

Achieve interoperability to prepare for future challenges

The COVID-19 crisis has really emphasized how important it is to be interoperable. The ability for your EHR and vendor to enable open communication between different platforms where patients are expecting you to know their information is critical.

It’s so important to have that data available wherever you go. Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR) is going to be an important next generation of how we deploy tools on top of EHRs. Being able to have community engagement with telehealth and patient engagement from a mobile perspective is becoming paramount.

Your organization needs a fully supported solution that works with a single platform across clinical, financial and ambulatory care settings, so your care teams can get the right information at the right time, resulting in the right decisions.

It’s a challenging time for the legacy healthcare delivery model. The right IT partner with expertise in delivering enabling, impactful technologies and services can help. Community hospitals need new ways to ensure successful IT implementations that free them to worry about what really matters most: patient care.

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