Everlasting Impact COVID-19 Has on Quality Healthcare in Rural Communities

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We know that 30% of the rural general acute care health centers in this country serve around 60 million people. That is an incredible number when you consider the median number of beds in these facilities is just 25! A Health Affairs study showed that profits declined for all rural health center types except for non-profit critical access hospitals (CAHs) over the past few years. Conversely, cash on hand improved for their larger urban counterparts. All of this occurred before COVID; what effect has the pandemic had on quality care in our rural communities this year?

COVID-19 and Rural Hospitals

All healthcare providers experienced cancellations or postponements of elective procedures earlier in the year due to the risk of exposure to the virus. There are also indicators that routine preventative care has also declined, creating even more of a drain on cash reservices for rural facilities.

Lower revenue in rural facilities caused serious financial challenges for small independent practices as well as health centers in these communities. While Congress released funding earlier in the year to healthcare providers, Health Affairs says, “It is unclear whether congressional relief…will be sufficient to compensate for COVID-19’s short-term financial impact on rural hospitals.”

Rural communities rely strongly on their small local facilities but with budgets already strained and the additional hit of the pandemic, the financial outlook and the quality of care could be impacted. By the end of October 2020, a spike in rural COVID cases placed even more strain on rural hospitals. COVID-related deaths increased by nearly 30% in these communities. Other challenges include:

  • Funding for rural health departments is lacking, which cripples their ability to test for the disease and triage positive cases to slow the spread of the illness.
  • Provider shortages at rural hospitals impact the quality of care delivery and place more pressure on existing teams.
  • Lack of consistent broadband coverage can negatively impact the ability to use telemedicine to triage and treat patients, a service that has been vital to quality care delivery in urban areas.

Too, the quality of care is impacted by the patients themselves, who, in rural communities, are often older, poorer, and sicker, requiring care often for multiple chronic conditions that leave them more vulnerable to the coronavirus. All of these issues will undoubtedly leave rural health centers vulnerable as COVID-19 cases likely rise through the winter. As we enter cold and flu season, it adds another challenging variable to a difficult year.

What’s Next for Rural Hospitals?

As cases continue to spike, a recent NPR report showed the true resourcefulness of the rural community. Health Centers are sharing resources, adding beds, and sending some patients to urban centers for treatment. These organizations can seek the help of staffing agencies to provide locum tenens solutions or additional staffing to help with the recent influx of COVID-19 patients.

But rural facilities also need additional financial resources allocated from the federal government to ensure that the long-term quality of care provided by this valuable safety net doesn’t start to wear thin. It’s a critical time for our nation’s rural facilities, but by pulling together, we can save these valuable resources and make them stronger for the long haul.

UHC Solutions works with FQHCs and community facilities to provide staffing resources. Talk with our team today about your options and how we can help your organization adapt to future challenges in the field.