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A doctor, miles away might help to save you one day

by Jeff Drop

For the 60 million U.S. adults who live in remote or rural areas, or for anyone traveling through them, getting to a hospital can be difficult and stressful. And when it’s an emergency—if you’ve been in a car accident or had a heart attack or stroke—being able to access care quickly can be the difference between life and death.

This is why critical access hospitals can be summed up in one word— critical. These hospitals provide access to critical care, when and where it’s needed most. But, it’s important to understand that these hospitals go far beyond responding to emergencies.

Not only do critical access hospitals provide the same quality of care that hospitals in major cities do, they oftentimes provide some of the best care in the country. They have the same playbook for hiring experienced, top-notch staff. They have the same commitment to improving patient safety. And they have the same dedication to providing a positive patient experience.

That’s not to say there aren’t differences. All hospitals are important to their communities, but critical access hospitals are uniquely intertwined with the people they serve. Many of these hospitals are as foundational to their communities as a post office or school—they’re not only nice to have, but vitally necessary.

This community necessity can be seen in the way our critical access hospitals operate. In North Dakota for example, the CEOs are outside shoveling snow alongside staff during the harsh winters. Patients are greeted on a first-name basis, most people know each other, and the overall feeling is warm, welcoming, and like neighbors taking care of neighbors. Which in fact, they are.

It can also be seen in the way we treat our patients. While most critical access hospitals provide similar base levels of service, the services offered at specific hospitals are tailored to the needs of the community. Whether that means expanding obstetrics and opening up a state-of-the-art family birth center, or doubling-down on trauma care and investing in a helipad and medical transport equipment, the community’s needs define the services provided.

Community involvement is another important factor. CHI LakeWood Health for instance, noticed that the only movie theater in Baudette, MN, was closing down, and for local teens that meant traveling 140 miles round trip to the nearest theater for date nights and movie premieres. For CHI LakeWood Health, that meant an unnecessary risk of car accidents on interstate highways. So, partnering with the CHI Mission & Ministry Fund, they built a new theater so that the community could spend less time at risk and more time enjoying each other’s company.

One of the community outreach efforts we’re most proud of is the ongoing work by CHI St. Gabriel’s Health to stop the opioid crisis in Little Falls, MN. After partnering with local organizations and law enforcement, they drastically reduced the amount of opioid prescriptions in their community. Their program was so successful at stemming opioid abuse that Congress and hospitals across the country have taken notice and tried to replicate their approach.

While people might judge the size of a critical access hospital, or visit a hospital’s website and see a smaller number of services offered, part of the playbook for these remote hospitals is to run a leaner operation. Every staff member plays a pivotal role in the success of the hospital, and every service offered needs to have a reason for being offered.

If a critical volume of patients need a service, we will work to offer it. And if there isn’t a critical need, then it’s better, and even safer for patients, for us to work with local partners or use virtual care to provide patients with the incremental care they need.

And no, virtual care isn’t quite as science fiction-y as it sounds. It simply means we have video monitors in critical access locations that we can use to video call a doctor or specialist from a larger market for our patients in need. These remote specialists can then guide onsite teams through the steps needed to help their patients in need.

The benefits of this set up are two-fold. For one, it means that a larger pool of patients can access critical health care in a geography that wouldn’t otherwise be supported. But it also means we can provide a higher level of care without having to pay to have numerous specialists on every local staff only to have them remain underutilized in many locations.

As technology continues to improve, we can continue to diversify the kinds of help we provide. Right now we offer services like virtual pharmacy and a virtual emergency room, but these will soon expand to include services like psychiatry, pediatrics, and dermatology.

Our critical access hospitals, our doctors and nurses, take great pride in caring for every patient who walks through our doors, whether they’re in crisis or need preventative care. We work for and with the community. And we strive to not only care for our patients, but save people a little bit of time and energy, and improve the lives of communities across rural America. That’s what we do.

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