By Chris Gallagher, M.D. CEO, Access TeleCare
What is the future of rural health care?
That’s a question on the minds of many health care leaders. With more than 185 rural hospitals closing between 2005 and 2022 and an additional 600 at risk of closure this year, rural hospital leaders and policymakers alike are looking for answers to address the challenge of sustaining a rural health care system when demographics and health care financing are not necessarily in its favor.
About 70 miles east of Dallas, Texas, there is a town with a community hospital that holds at least part of the answer. A town of just over 16,000 people, Sulphur Springs is a thriving rural community proudly serving East Texas. While changing ownership a couple of times in its history, CHRISTUS Mother Frances Hospital – Sulphur Springs has served the community since 2016.
Today, it has about 60 staffed beds managed by a select team of physicians and advanced practice providers who work full-time at the hospital. However, that hasn’t stopped it from offering a full range of specialty services from neurology and hospitalist to critical care/ICU and nephrology.
It happened over time, and it wasn’t always easy.
Today, Sulphur Springs has nine specialty service lines delivered through telemedicine entirely or in part. The Sulphur Springs hospitalist program, for example, goes completely virtual for nighttime coverage. A teleNeurology team is available to provide stroke coverage for emergencies and can take care of a wide range of patients experiencing other neurologic disorders. Sulphur Springs has a relationship with a nearby academic center to provide teleNephrology services while leveraging Access TeleCare’s carts and technology solutions. There is also remote care for infectious disease, and Access TeleCare staffs the hospital’s 10-bed ICU with entirely virtual pulmonary and critical care specialists. In fact, the first 100 percent virtual ICU in the Texas was started right here.
Over the last decade, the hospital transformed to the point where the surrounding community accepts, expects, and values telemedicine. Patients know that they can get specialty care at their local hospital, without having to drive 70 miles to Dallas—it’s just that some of their doctors will be virtual.
There is even an outpatient facility with a nurse and medical assistant, wired with virtual care technology, that can see up to 60 patients a day. If someone needs to be accommodated for an emergency appointment, the outpatient facility can leverage all the same access to specialty care that the hospital can, and transfer patients if necessary.
In addition, the hospital has an easier time recruiting primary care providers to live and practice in Sulphur Springs. These primary care physicians know they will be able to refer patients locally– rather than sending them to Dallas—a trip many patients would be unwilling or unable to make. And, these physicians can maintain continuity of care because specialty care is available locally.
CHRISTUS Mother Frances Hospital — Sulphur Springs hospital is special and should be applauded for its vision and commitment to creativity and investments, but it should not be considered so unique that other hospitals cannot do the same.
With the right on-site teams (both administrative and clinical), willingness to change, and the right partner, any hospital can do what Sulphur Springs has done.
Someone asked me recently: what is the limit? How far can a hospital go toward reimagining the care experience with virtual specialty care? When it comes to improving access, if there is a limit, we are very far from that limit indeed.
Rural hospitals have never been more challenged. They’ve also never been more committed to serving their communities and doing what it takes to maintain local health care access. Access TeleCare is proud of its rural hospital partnerships – a number that grows each month. Together, we are improving access to care, with downstream improvements to financial viability, patient satisfaction, and outcomes.
To learn more about how Access TeleCare can serve your community, contact us today.