As we continue to battle the unseen virus COVID-19, more people are realizing the need for and importance of rural hospitals. These hospitals continue to lose their funding or are being shuttered altogether and now there are thousands of people with nowhere to go for medical treatment. Rural hospitals have faced many other problems over the past few years, including:

  • Low reimbursement rates
  • Reduced volumes of patients
  • Increased regulations
  • Uncompensated care

With rural hospitals struggling financially, and some closing their doors, now more than ever we see how important these hospitals are to their communities aside from just treating sick or injured patients.

Impact of rural hospitals on communities

The Economic Impact of Rural Health Care outlined the ways in which a rural hospital impacts its community financially:

  • Total employment in rural areas consists of 14 percent in the health sector. For the most part, rural hospitals are the largest employers in these areas.
  • Rural communities have an easier time attracting retirees and new businesses when rural hospitals operate.
  • A rural hospital with 26 to 50 beds and 185 employees typically spends $11.8 million in wages, benefits, and salaries on average.

Non-profit, tax-exempt rural hospitals are required to perform activities that benefit their communities every year by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). One such activity that is required is a Community Health Needs Assessment, which must be performed every three years. A study conducted by the American Hospital Association in 2019 for 2016 found that rural hospitals spent 12 percent of their total expenses on community activities.

Challenges rural hospitals face

Aside from the challenges mentioned previously, rural hospitals face many steep hills to climb. These challenges include:

  • Problems with recruiting and retaining employees
  • Operating using a modest budget
  • Remote locations
  • A rapidly changing healthcare system
  • The rural America demographics (older, poorer, more chronic conditions)

Rural hospitals closing by the dozens

In a surprising statistic, 128 rural hospitals have closed between January 2010 and March 25, 2020, according to the North Carolina Rural Health Research Program. If you look back further, to 2005, a total of 170 rural hospitals have closed to date. As of April 14, eight rural hospitals have closed in 2020. Since 2005, the highest number of rural hospital closures occurred in 2019 when 19 shuttered their doors.

Proposed alternatives to traditional hospital models

In an effort to save as many rural hospitals as possible, alternatives to traditional hospital models have been proposed. Some of these include a rural emergency acute care hospital, a community outpatient hospital, a 24/7 emergency department, and a rural emergency medical center.

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