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.”
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.