Public Policy

Small-Town Tonic


 

In mid-August, the White House released its “Jobs and Economic Security for Rural America” report (www.whitehouse.gov), which underlines what most hospitalists already know: Rural healthcare is ailing. As the report points out, rural residents are more likely to be uninsured or be covered through public sources, while mortality rates have dropped more slowly in rural areas than in urban ones.

One troubling statistic in particular highlights the disparity in access: In 2008, the report notes, rural counties had 62 primary-care physicians (PCPs) per 100,000 residents, while urban areas counted an average of 79.5 PCPs (28% more). Although a number of initiatives have specifically sought to narrow that gap, a lesser-known dynamic between primary care and HM might be exacerbating the shortage.

Over the past few years, several reports and media accounts have suggested that medical students increasingly want practices that are either hospital-based or office-based, but not both. The presence of hospitalists, then, helps rural facilities create an attractive office-hospital divide and place PCPs in practices frequently owned by the hospital. Hospitalists, in other words, might be necessary prerequisites to help lure and retain PCPs.

To get someone to come to our area almost always requires some form of local connection. That makes retention paramount.

—Louis J. O’Boyle, DO, FACP, FHM, medical director, Advanced Inpatient Medicine, P.C., Honesdale, Pa.

Meanwhile, many physicians already in private rural practices are burning out. According to the 2009 Rural Hospitalist Study by the Illinois Critical Access Health Network, “primary-care physicians in rural areas are throwing in the towel of managing their hospitalized patients. More and more, these PCPs unilaterally are announcing to their patients and to the local hospitals they will neither continue to take responsibility for hospitalized patients nor continue to ‘take call.’ ”

Ome Nwanze, MD, one of two hospitalists at the 42-bed Greenville Regional Hospital in Greenville, Ill., says the biggest benefit to being a rural hospitalist is the ability to make a difference in the lives of everyone in the community. Along with patients, Dr. Nwanze includes other doctors as beneficiaries: “The primary-care physicians and specialists are very happy with the program and the difference it makes in their lives.”

Competitive Business

If hospitalists are a natural solution, though, there’s a key problem: Rural communities are struggling to attract them as well. One sign of the difficulty is median salary. Similar to what surveys consistently show for other specialties, rural hospitalists outpace their urban counterparts in median annual salary, at roughly $206,000 versus $187,000, according to Becker’s Hospital Review (overall, hospitalists rank behind most other specialties in salary). The rural-urban divide can be attributed to that old real estate adage: location, location, location. Competition for hospitalist jobs in large cities is generally fierce, while rural communities often have to offer more incentives to attract and retain the doctors they need.

“The two biggest issues that I can see are recruitment and night coverage,” says Louis J. O’Boyle, DO, FACP, FHM, medical director of Advanced Inpatient Medicine (AIM), P.C., in Honesdale, Pa. He and AIM’s four other hospitalists work exclusively with the town’s 98-bed Wayne Memorial Hospital. “It is easier to recruit to a larger city, closer to more activities and residency programs,” Dr. O’Boyle says. “To get someone to come to our area almost always requires some form of local connection. That makes retention paramount.”

Night call can be a particular sticking point: Most rural hospitals aren’t busy enough to justify an FTE nocturnist, he says, putting the onus of night call on full-time hospitalists. Wayne Memorial Hospital is fortunate in that regard, as it averages only one or two admissions a day after 10 p.m., leaving the hospitalists “fresh enough to round the next day,” Dr. O’Boyle says. “However, this still makes rural programs less attractive compared to places that can boast a nocturnist team that eliminates night call.”

Government Assistance

So what has the government done to help address the growing need for more rural hospitalists and other healthcare providers? If the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) measures proceed as expected, most experts predict a significant drop in the number of uninsured individuals—meaning a surge in both rural and urban demand for care.

According to the White House report, the Department of Health and Human Services has funded 444 rural community health centers since 2009. The ACA has expanded and extended the Medicare Rural Community Hospital Demonstration, providing “an estimated $52 million in enhanced reimbursement for inpatient services at 25 rural hospitals.” And the administration has expanded funding for the National Health Service Corps, which offers doctors scholarships and loan repayment in exchange for a commitment to practice medicine at underserved communities. The corps website boasts that more than 8,000 clinicians are in place, but it also notes that there are “more than 9,000 job vacancies for NHSC primary care medical, dental, and mental health clinicians.” (View the full report at http://nhsc.hrsa.gov/about.) Clearly, loan forgiveness isn’t enough.

Furthermore, the government might be facing a perception problem. Dr. Nwanze describes government support to rural programs as “poor,” while Dr. O’Boyle says he’s not aware of any specific efforts to support rural hospitalists. “There may be some areas, such as giving grants for telemedicine and other tertiary support, but I don’t think those of us in rural programs can sense any impact,” Dr. O’Boyle says. Wayne Memorial Hospital is in an underserved area, he says, and PCPs there do receive loan forgiveness. “However, I was disappointed to learn that those programs are not open to hospitalists.”

Meanwhile, many rural hospitalists face daunting responsibilities. Dr. Nwanze cites “the need to be a jack-of-all-trades and master of all,” and notes the pressure of providing a wide range of services and handling almost all situations with little or no specialist support.

But Dr. O’Boyle also sees opportunity in the autonomy, such as the ability to play a larger role in hospital management and more independence. “We don’t have a plethora of subspecialists looking for business,” he says. “That means much greater responsibility for our hospitalists, who will take care of much sicker patients without specialist backup being readily available.” As a result, advanced duties like ventilator management and the care of complex patients with such diagnoses as acute renal failure or new malignancies are all within the realm of the hospitalist.

“This is an attractive prospect for certain hospitalists who like the idea of taking care of patients without feeling like a captain who merely delegates to multiple specialists,” Dr. O’Boyle says. “Also, the group integrates into hospital committees at every level, and has an overall much larger say in the day-to-day operations, something largely out of the control of a hospitalist group at a large tertiary facility.”

Tech Solutions

Despite the challenges, many rural hospitals are gaining new tools to help them survive, and tech-savvy hospitalists might be big assets. Smaller facilities are increasingly gaining access to electronic health records, while many also are using video links to allow specialists hundreds of miles away to help with diagnoses without having to transfer the patients.

Recent research also suggests that hospital discharges could be better in rural communities.

Bryn Nelson is a freelance medical writer based in Seattle.

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