Rapidly advancing technological developments are helping rural hospitals save patients—and themselves. Throughout the country, hospital leaders are looking at ways they can strengthen their bottom line using technologies that better serve their communities and keep patients closer to home. In Michigan, urban surgeons perform complex procedures at small Critical Access Hospitals (CAHs). Robotic surgery expands physician and hospital capabilities in Minnesota. And in Washington, medical robots place remote physician specialists at the bedside of critically ill patients. “Ten years ago, what we’re doing wouldn’t have been possible,” asserts Michigan Rural Healthcare Preservation (MRHP) CEO Ethan Lipkind. “There have been astronomical strides in medical technology that have improved engineering, and advancements that have made it possible to provide sophisticated procedures in settings that were previously impossible. And we can do all of it in an exceptionally safe environment that benefits both patient and hospital.” Today’s patients are smart and savvy, and they request best practice options such as robotic surgery, according to Joy Johnson, chief operating officer at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center (SBMC) in Bemidji, Minn. Patients want to stay close to home for care but they will travel long distances for best practice surgical options, Johnson said, adding that rural hospitals must be proactive technologically to maintain a solid bottom line. “The old paradigm was that a hospital’s purpose was to aggregate all the professionals in one place and bring patients there,” says Tom Martin, CEO at Lincoln Hospital in Davenport, Wash. “Now that ability is changing to us bringing the professionals to where the patients are.”
Increasing Treatment AccessLipkind knows of no organization similar to MRHP, a nonprofit network created in 2010 to help remote rural hospitals remain operational by developing environments that offer patients the advantages of the latest technologies. MRHP collaborates with CAHs in Deckerville and West Branch to operate a surgical program where four urban surgeons travel to the CAHs to do neurosurgery, complex urology, spine and orthopedic surgeries, fusion procedures and advanced pain care management. “The traveling surgeons are the lifeline of this arrangement,” Lipkind commented. “Patient outcomes have been stellar. In these small rural hospitals, the focus is on one individual patient at a time. So these patients get more individualized care.”
Mary Ann*, a patient with a lumbar disk injury, terms her surgical experience “fantastic.” Dr. Gerald Schell, a board certified neurosurgeon with Michigan Clinic Neurosurgery in Saginaw, performed Mary Ann’s multilevel spinal fusion in the Operating Room of the 15-bed Deckerville Community Hospital (DCH). “I was treated like family from walking in the door until being discharged,” Mary Ann said. “The staff went above and beyond the call of duty.” According to DCH Chief Financial Officer Valerie Bryant, the surgical program has stabilized DCH financially, improved employee morale and been embraced by patients. DCH’s upfront investments included equipment upgrades and staff training. “It takes additional nursing and clinical staff because we need all hands on deck the days these surgeons come in,” Bryant said. “We have to take care of our patients in the hospital and put more staff in the OR. But the benefit has definitely outweighed our additional expenses.” MRHP is expanding surgical options at these network hospitals and has begun working with two more rural hospitals to develop programs specific to their needs. Lipkind said MRHP is also affiliated with physician offices, the Field Neurosciences Institute and Central Michigan University College of Medicine.