Seeking Solutions for Rural Health’s Challenges: Takeaways from Phoenix

By Beth Nelson

The plight of rural hospitals and health systems continues to be one of the most critical issues facing the healthcare industry. It is one reason that the number of attendees at the annual AHA Rural Health Care Leadership Conference continues to rise, as indicated by the robust crowds that gathered at this year’s event in Phoenix. I have attended the event for more than a half-dozen consecutive years now, and I am always struck by attendees’ commitment to figuring out very difficult problems.

As I attended talks and sessions this year, several key themes seemed to dominate discussions and resonate from speaker to speaker. The following are four themes that I took note of:

Addressing rural health disparities: The challenges of providing high-quality healthcare to sparsely populated areas of the U.S. continue to mount. Higher incidences of disease and increased mortality rates are two issues that are indicative of rural healthcare’s struggle to provide adequate care to all residents. There was significant discussion at the conference on how to ensure healthier outcomes for rural residents. Solutions focused on providing better access to care (via, for example, improved transportation, more in-home care, increased telemedicine, etc.). The prevailing sentiment was that the cost of proactive and preventative measures is much less than the price of readmissions and perpetual care. 

Managing physician shortages and recruitment: The era of the small-town physician is disappearing, and rural hospitals and clinical practices are increasingly challenged to hire and retain qualified medical staff. Solutions discussed included ensuring that physicians feel engaged with their patients and colleagues, that they are viewed as partners in decision-making by leadership, and creating a culture where physician leadership and employees are working in collaboration to deliver high-quality care. Many of the CEOs and other leaders I spoke with at the conference mentioned physician recruitment as a strategic imperative. 

Boosting telemedicine: A critical element in rural healthcare’s future, telemedicine is being adopted broadly and was a hot topic of discussion at the conference. While there is consensus on the benefits of technologies that enable remote care – including improving physician work-life balance – there were differing views on how to offer virtual care solutions that are innovative and cost effective. Organizations such as Bryan Health of Lincoln, Nebraska, shared their best practices in providing cost-effective virtual care. It’s clear that, while cost is an issue, there is a strong trend toward the adoption of telemedicine and virtual care that is improving providers’ ability to serve their constituents.

Improving governance: In recent years, rural healthcare boards have increased their skills and knowledge in order to become better strategic partners with CEOs and top executives. Conference attendees in Phoenix discussed the need for rural boards to provide greater strategic value to their organizations—to provide “oversight, insight, and foresight,” as one presenter said during a workshop on governance and innovation. There is a greater focus on governance that prioritizes public health and well-being and on maximizing the organization’s benefit to the community.

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