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How to Save Rural and Community Hospitals from Extinction

By Dr. Patrick Quinlan

Rural hospitals are closing at an alarming rate, leaving many without access to care. Virtual care can bridge the gap.

Rural Americans face many challenges when it comes to accessing healthcare. On average, they live twice as far away from the nearest hospital as those in urban or suburban areas. A report from March of this year shows that over 500 rural US hospital locations are currently at risk of closing due to financial losses and more than 40% of all the rural hospitals in the country are either at immediate risk or high risk of closing. These hospitals are essential economic and medical hubs for communities and the surrounding areas and their continued operation is essential not only to the local population but to urban and suburban health as well.

Hippo Virtual Care™ can help rural hospitals around the country avoid this fate. Virtual care supports local caregivers with remote specialists using innovative communication and collaboration technology (a voice-activated wearable computer that provides real-time patient video streaming and information).

 

Reduce outmigration of workers and patients

Working in a rural hospital setting can be a challenge for providers. Many have to forgo specialization to treat the diverse set of illnesses their community faces and be able to perform a variety of procedures. There simply aren’t enough specialists to meet the needs of the US patient population. It can be hard for hospitals to survive economically without specialty services, and it is progressively more difficult to recruit primary care physicians without local specialty support. This negative spiral sends clinicians and patients to regional hospitals and medium sized towns to obtain healthcare.

Virtual care can help reverse this situation, giving rural providers access to specialists and decreasing the burden of care. By bringing on-demand virtual access to specialty care from larger care facilities, local health facilities can once again become local hubs of medical expertise.

 

Increase market share

Without local specialists, many patients are forced to find care at larger hospital facilities, crippling the economics of rural centers. To combat these losses, many independent rural hospitals have merged with larger facilities to survive. But too often, these mergers do not result in the promised increase in patient population, technological upgrades, and infusion of capital that were promised or implied in these mergers. Most importantly, economies of scale from mergers do not materially improve access to much needed care at the smaller network facilities. There just aren’t enough skilled medical personnel who are able and willing to live in rural areas.

Hippo can address that. The zero sum competition that exists today can become a positive outcome for medical institutions, where the result is greater than the sum of its parts – delivering better access, better quality at lower cost, and increased market share. Hippo’s Virtual Care Platform can create a knowledge network that combines in-person community care with regional Center of Excellence expertise. Through virtual care, medical expertise can scale efficiently and effectively across the full spectrum of medical institutions to meet the needs of individuals wherever they live and fulfill the promise of population health and value-based care.

 

Import specialty expertise

A physician’s specialty is highly influential on where they will later practice. A 2019 report found that over half of physicians practice in the same state where they completed residency training. This puts rural hospitals at a disadvantage from the start as most residency programs are concentrated in urban or suburban areas.

Hippo Virtual Care can save rural and community hospitals from extinction by creating a hub and spoke model, bringing specialist care to rural communities rather than rural hospitals acting as a referral center for complex cases. With Hippo, primary care physicians can virtually connect with specialists to consult, diagnose, and treat patients in place, in real time. Unlike traditional telehealth, which is generally suitable for simple primary care consultations, the Hippo Virtual Care solution combines voice-activated, wearable headsets at the point of care with a clinical-grade platform to deliver a “through the eyes of the clinician” viewpoint. First Responders to a trauma scene or remote healthcare workers at a rural clinic or patient home can livestream what they are seeing and doing to specialist colleagues for real-time remote consults on complex cases. With Hippo’s Virtual Care Platform, rural hospitals can gain access to specialists for chronic care management, strokes, obstetric emergencies, and more.

These virtual consults allow rural providers on the frontline to receive real-time support from specialists, expanding access to knowledge and effectively overcoming the barriers of time, distance and training to empower rural providers to better serve their patients. This model allows rural hospitals to become small centers of excellence in their own right, increases their capabilities and revenue, and helps attract new staff members. The immediate impact on patient care, outcomes, service and satisfaction is huge – no more delays, travel and frustration for rural residents needing specialist diagnosis and treatment.

Reports of the demise of the rural hospital have not been grossly exaggerated, but there is hope in the form of Hippo.

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