COVID reaches rural America
Early COVID caseloads tended to be in urban areas, but subsequent surges of infections have spread to many rural areas. Some rural settings became epicenters for the pandemic in November and December 2020. More recent troubling rises in COVID cases, particularly in areas with lower vaccination rates – suggest that the challenges of the pandemic are still not behind us.
“By no means is the crisis done in rural America,” said Alan Morgan, CEO of the National Rural Health Association, in a Virtual Rural Health Journalism workshop on rural health care sponsored by the Association of Health Care Journalists.2
Mr. Morgan’s colleague, Brock Slabach, NRHA’s chief operations officer, said in an interview that, while 453 of the 1,800 hospitals in rural areas fit NRHA’s criteria as being vulnerable to closure, the rest are not, and are fulfilling their missions for their communities. Hospitalists are becoming more common in these hospitals, he said, and rural hospitalists can be an important asset in attracting primary care physicians – who might not appreciate being perpetually on call for their hospitalized patients – to rural communities.
In many cases, traveling doctors like Dr. Mandal or telemedicine backup, particularly for after-hours coverage or ICU beds, are important pieces of the puzzle for smaller hospitals. There are different ways to use the spectrum of telemedicine services to interact with a hospital’s daytime and night routines. In some isolated locations, nurse practitioners or physician assistants provide on-the-ground coverage with virtual backup. Rural hospitals often affiliate with telemedicine networks within health systems – or else contract with independent specialized providers of telemedicine consultation.
Mr. Slabach said another alternative for staffing hospitals with smaller ED and inpatient volumes is to have one doctor on duty who can cover both departments simultaneously. Meanwhile, the new federal Rural Emergency Hospital Program proposes to allow rural hospitals to become essentially freestanding EDs – starting Jan. 1, 2023 – that can manage patients for a maximum of 24 hours.3
Community connections and proactive staffing
Lisa Kaufmann, MD, works as a hospitalist for a two-hospital system in North Carolina, Appalachian Regional Health Care. She practices at Watauga Medical Center, with 100 licensed beds in Boone, and at Cannon Memorial Hospital, a critical access hospital in unincorporated Linville. “We are proud of what we have been able to accomplish during the pandemic,” she said.
A former critical care unit at Watauga had been shut down, but its wiring remained intact. “We turned it into a COVID unit in three days. Then we opened another COVID unit with 18 beds, but that still wasn’t enough. We converted half of our med/surg capacity into a COVID unit. At one point almost half of all of our acute beds were for COVID patients. We made plans for what we would do if it got worse, since we had almost run out of beds,” she said. Demand peaked at the end of January 2021.
“The biggest barrier for us was if someone needed to be transferred, for example, if they needed ECMO [extracorporeal membrane oxygenation], and we couldn’t find another hospital to provide that technology.” In ARHC’s mountainous region – known as the “High Country” – weather can also make it difficult to transport patients. “Sometimes the ambulance can’t make it off the mountain, and half of the time the medical helicopter can’t fly. So we have to be prepared to keep people who we might think ought to be transferred,” she said.
Like many rural communities, the High Country is tightly knit, and its hospitals are really connected to their communities, Dr. Kaufmann said. The health system already had a lot of community connections beyond acute care, and that meant the pandemic wasn’t experienced as severely as it was in some other rural communities. “But without hospitalists in our hospitals, it would have been much more difficult.”
Proactive supply fulfillment meant that her hospitals never ran out of personal protective equipment. “Staffing was a challenge, but we were proactive in getting traveling doctors to come here. We also utilized extra doctors from the local community,” she said. Another key was well-established disaster planning, with regular drills, and a robust incident command structure, which just needed to be activated in the crisis. “Small hospitals need to be prepared for disaster,” Dr. Kaufmann said.
For Dale Wiersma, MD, a hospitalist with Spectrum Health, a 14-hospital system in western Michigan, telemedicine services are coordinated across 8 rural regional hospitals. “We don’t tend to use it for direct hospitalist work during daytime hours, unless a facility is swamped, in which case we can cross-cover. We do more telemedicine at night. But during daytime hours we have access to stroke neurology, cardiology, psychiatry, critical care and infectious disease specialists who are able to offer virtual consults,” Dr. Wiersma said. A virtual critical care team of doctor and nurse is often the only intensivist service covering Spectrum’s rural hospitals.
“In our system, the pandemic accelerated the adoption of telemedicine,” Dr. Wiersma said. “We had been working on the tele-ICU program, trying to get it rolled out. When the pandemic hit, we launched it in just 6 weeks.”
There have been several COVID surges in Michigan, he said. “We were stretched pretty close to our limit several times, but never to the breaking point. For our physicians, it was the protracted nature of the pandemic that was fatiguing for everyone involved. Our system worked hard to staff up as well as it could, to make sure our people didn’t go over the edge.” It was also hard for hospitals that typically might see one or two deaths in a month to suddenly have five in a week.
Another Spectrum hospitalist, Christopher Skinner, MD, works at two rural Michigan hospitals 15 minutes apart in Big Rapids and Reed City. “I prefer working in rural areas. I’ve never had an ambition to be a top dog. I like the style of practice where you don’t have all of the medical subspecialties on site. It frees you up to use all your skills,” Dr. Skinner said.
But that approach was put to the test by the pandemic, since it was harder to transfer those patients who normally would not have stayed at these rural hospitals. “We had to make do,” he said, although virtual backup and second opinions from Spectrum’s virtual critical care team helped.
“It was a great collaboration, which helped us to handle critical care cases that we hadn’t had to manage pre-COVID. We’ve gotten used to it, with the backup, so I expect we’ll still be taking care of these kind of sick ventilator patients even after the pandemic ends,” Dr. Skinner said. “We’ve gotten pretty good at it.”
Sukhbir Pannu, MD, a hospitalist in Denver and CEO and founder of Rural Physicians Group, said the pandemic was highly impactful, operationally and logistically, for his firm, which contracts with 54 hospitals to provide their hospitalist staffing. “There was no preparation. Everything had to be done on the fly. Initially, it was felt that rural areas weren’t at as great a risk for COVID, but that proved not to be true. Many experienced a sudden increase in very sick patients. We set up a task force to manage daily census in all of our contracted facilities.”
How did Rural Physicians Group manage through the crisis? “The short answer is telemedicine,” he said. “We had physicians on the ground in these hospitals. But we needed intensivists at the other end of the line to support them.” A lot of conversations about telemedicine were already going on in the company, but the pandemic provided the impetus to launch its network, which has grown to include rheumatologists, pulmonologists, cardiologists, infection medicine, neurology, and psychiatry, all reachable through a central command structure.
Telemedicine is not a cure-all, Dr. Pannu said. It doesn’t work in a vacuum. It requires both a provider on the ground and specialists available remotely. “But it can be a massive multiplier.”