A Shot in the Arm for Rural Healthcare

Staffing underserved communities to provide the care they need

By Brent Burrows

Rural healthcare has been front and center as lawmakers work to help those in underserved or disadvantaged communities fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Last month, lawmakers passed the $8.5 billion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, a move designed to help keep the lights on for rural hospitals and increase healthcare coverage during the pandemic and beyond. Funds will go toward vaccine distribution, provider training, telehealth, and more.

But while assisting rural communities has been spotlighted by the battle against the coronavirus, helping meet patient demand in these areas isn’t something new. In fact, locum tenens firms like Consilum Staffing have been doing it for years. Here are some of the rural healthcare realities we’re seeing – and what we expect for the immediate future.

Areas in Need

In response to the pandemic, rural areas, like the rest of the nation, have seen a ramped up need for patient care. Our firm is seeing a spike in requests for rural health providers in Georgia, the Carolinas, Missouri, Minnesota, Iowa, and Michigan. In the South, communities in Texas and Oklahoma routinely need our help. While we provide coverage for most all specialty lines, our clients have most recently needed the most help in family medicine, urgent care, dentistry, and psychiatry, particularly to help staff up rural health clinics.

So what happens when there isn’t enough funding to keep those doors open? When a rural health center or hospital closes, the patient impact is tremendous. Patients still need to be seen, so they’re forced to leave their neighborhoods and go elsewhere, which puts pressure on the surrounding communities that now need to handle the influx.

Legislature Paves the Way for Assistance

The Emergency Rural Health Care Grant Program, appropriated under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, will allocate $500 million in grant funding to help 40 rural communities annually. Track one of the plan will help address economic issues brought on by the pandemic, and track two will offer funds to assist with long-term sustainability.

This relief package could be the difference between staying open or closing down for many rural facilities — which, again, can have a profound impact on the greater area. In a small community, the ripple effects of a hospital closure can be devastating for employment. Physicians, nurses, and staff will be forced to find work in other areas, which then trickles down to other industries and impacts the economy of the entire community.

Right now, many of the rural health clinics we work with tell us they’re seeing 30% to 40% fewer patients than they did in the previous year. These facilities aren’t operating on excessive margins. In fact, their revenue stream has been cut in half or worse because they aren’t even back up to pre-pandemic visits. An influx of funds from the grant program will help these clinics stay afloat, or even differentiate themselves if they can add a service line.

What I like about this program is that now some of these communities will be better positioned for the future. The program’s two-fold approach is smart. It’s both a shot in the arm to gain back lost revenue, and an avenue for long-term growth and stability.

How Rural Healthcare is Changing

Just like metros and suburban areas, rural communities are experiencing the changes taking place in the healthcare industry. One of the strongest drivers of this transformation is the rush of telemedicine. Because of the pandemic, more patients have grown comfortable with telehealth — and more providers now offer it. Technology has enabled the delivery of care to patients who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, come into the office.

But with the prevalence of vaccines and a slow “return to normal,” the opposite is also true, which is that many people are tired of talking to a computer screen and they want that in-person connection. This is why we have providers who don’t want telehealth jobs. They want to go into rural communities and see patients face to face. While some healthcare services are a fantastic match with video calls, others are not. Zoom and Facetime fatigue are real for patients — and providers feel it too.

Making a Bigger Difference

Our firm has long seen interest from locum tenens providers who intentionally request assignments in rural communities. Why? Because these are the areas where they believe they can make the greatest difference. For many locums providers, rural healthcare is a “purer” form of medicine. Not in terms of actual treatment, but in terms of service.

We see that, for many providers, working in rural areas aligns with their passion for healthcare. They want to help people. They want to make a difference. The federal grants and funds will help more physicians and nurses reach more patients. And that situation is good for everyone.

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