In 2018, Atashi Mandal, MD, a hospitalist residing in Orange County, Calif., was recruited along with several other doctors to fill hospitalist positions in rural Bishop, Calif. She has since driven 600 miles round trip every month for a week of hospital medicine shifts at Northern Inyo Hospital.
Dr. Mandal said she has really enjoyed her time at the small rural hospital and found it professionally fulfilling to participate so fully in the health of its local community. She was building personal bonds and calling the experience the pinnacle of her career when the COVID-19 pandemic swept across America and the world, even reaching up into Bishop, population 3,760, in the isolated Owens Valley.
The 25-bed hospital has seen at least 100 COVID patients in the past year and some months. Responsibility for taking care of these patients has been both humbling and gratifying, Dr. Mandal said. The facility’s hospitalists made a commitment to keep working through the pandemic. “We were able to come together (around COVID) as a team and our teamwork really made a difference,” she said.
“One of the advantages in a smaller hospital is you can have greater cohesiveness and your communication can be tighter. That played a big role in how we were able to accomplish so much with fewer resources as a rural hospital.” But staffing shortages, recruitment, and retention remain a perennial challenge for rural hospitals. “And COVID only exacerbated the problems,” she said. “I’ve had my challenges trying to make proper treatment plans without access to specialists.”
It was also difficult to witness so many patients severely ill or dying from COVID, Dr. Mandal said, especially since patients were not allowed family visitors – even though that was for a good reason, to minimize the virus’s spread.
HM in rural communities
Hospital medicine continues to extend into rural communities and small rural hospitals. In 2018, 35.7% of all rural counties in America had hospitals staffed with hospitalists, and 63.3% of rural hospitals had hospitalist programs (compared with 79.2% of urban hospitals). These numbers come from Medicare resources files from the Department of Health & Human Services, analyzed by Peiyin Hung, PhD, assistant professor of health services management and policy at the University of South Carolina, Columbia.1 Hospitalist penetration rates rose steadily from 2011 to 2017, with a slight dip in 2018, Dr. Hung said in an interview.
A total of 138 rural hospitals have closed since 2010, according to the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research in Chapel Hill, N.C. Nineteen rural hospitals closed in 2020 alone, although many of those were caused by factors predating the pandemic. Only one has closed so far in 2021. But financial pressures, including low patient volumes and loss of revenue from canceled routine services like elective surgeries during the pandemic, have added to hospitals’ difficulties. Pandemic relief funding may have helped some hospitals stay open, but that support eventually will go away.
Experts emphasize the diversity of rural America and its health care systems. Rural economies are volatile and more diverse than is often appreciated. The hospital may be a cornerstone of the local economy; when one closes, it can devastate the community. Workforce is one of the chief components of a hospital’s ability to meet its strategic vision, and hospitalists are a big part in that. But while hospitalists are valued and appreciated, if the hospital is suffering severe financial problems, that will impact its doctors’ jobs and livelihoods.
“Bandwidth” varies widely for rural hospitalists and their hospitalist groups, said Ken Simone, DO, SFHM, executive chair of SHM’s Rural Special Interest Group and founder and principal of KGS Consultants, a Hospital Medicine and Primary Care Practice Management Consulting company. They may face scarce resources, scarce clinical staffing, lack of support staff to help operations run smoothly, lack of access to specialists locally, and lack of technology. While practicing in a rural setting presents various challenges, it can be rewarding for those clinicians who embrace its autonomy and broad scope of services, Dr. Simone said.
SHM’s Rural SIG focuses on the unique needs of rural hospitalists, providing them with an opportunity to share their concerns, challenges and solutions through roundtable discussions every other month and a special interest forum held in conjunction with the SHM Converge annual conference, Dr. Simone said. (The next SHM Converge will be April 7-10, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn.) The Rural SIG also collaborates with other hospital medicine SIGs and committees and is working on a white paper, “Key Principles and Characteristics of an Effective Rural Hospital Medicine Group.” It is also looking to develop a rural mentorship exchange program.