When you think of rural hospitals and providers, you probably picture a small clinic with one or two general practitioners providing services to a dispersed community of residents — perhaps even making house calls. And in some cases, you might not be far off. But rural healthcare facilities are key points of care for millions of Americans, and many are struggling to keep their doors open.
The state of rural healthcare in the United States
Rural hospitals are the point of care for millions of rural families. Because of the wide area these facilities serve, providers are often able to forge long-term relationships with a large number of patients. Rural hospitals are often the foundation of rural communities. They are frequently the largest employer in the area and attract other businesses to the community. But financial difficulties are causing closures — and leaving many people without easy access to medical — which means poorer community health and higher mortality rates.
Challenges facing rural hospitals
Despite their importance to the communities they serve, rural healthcare facilities face many challenges. One of the biggest problems is access. Because of distance, transportation to clinics is difficult, and hours of facility operation may be limited due to a persistent lack of adequate staffing. Emergency services are also limited, and ambulance service is less effective because of long travel distances.
Rural hospitals typically face a myriad of financial struggles as well. They serve fewer patients than the average urban hospital, and their patient populations are usually aging and suffering from more chronic health issues. Rural populations also tend to have a higher rate of reliance on government payers for their healthcare, and those without government coverage are likely to have less than adequate coverage — if they have health insurance at all.
Addressing rural healthcare challenges
Overcoming these challenges starts by emphasizing the strengths and advantages of rural healthcare facilities. Long-term patient relationships foster continuity of care and provide doctors with additional insights for making the best healthcare decisions for their patients.
Digital healthcare strategies such as electronic health records, patient portals, and communication technologies, such as email, text, and patient interactive voice response (IVR) can help patients and providers interact. But implementing technology presents its own set of challenges due to the lack of IT resources typical in rural healthcare facilities. Some facilities have had success working with third-party IT vendors to solve connectivity problems.
One of the most promising recent healthcare developments for rural facilities is the rapid advancement of telehealth technology. The pandemic brought telemedicine to the forefront of medical practice, and it’s especially helpful to rural providers and their patients. Telehealth gives patients access to virtual doctor visits, protects their safety during the ongoing pandemic, and allows providers to easily consult with other medical professionals. And new reimbursement provisions allow providers to bill payers for telehealth services.
Rural medical facilities are essential to the health of the communities they serve. And while they will continue to face challenges, focusing on their existing strengths and embracing new technology can mitigate these problems and provide critical health services for rural populations.
For help navigating telehealth coding and billing, contact TruBridge today.
Written by Kim Veprek
TruBridge Sr. Director, Revenue Cycle Solutions