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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.
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, 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, 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, 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, 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, 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.
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
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 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.
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, 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,” 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,” 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,” 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,” 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,” 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, 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.”
Other hospitals, including small and rural ones, have reported taking on the challenge of covering critical care with nonintensivist physicians because the pandemic demanded it. David Aymond, MD, a hospitalist at 60-bed Byrd Regional Hospital in Leesville, La., population 6,612, has advocated for years for expanded training and credentialing opportunities in intensive care medicine beyond the traditional path of becoming a board-certified intensivist. Some rural hospitalists were already experienced in providing critical care for ICU patients even before the pandemic hit.
“What COVID did was to highlight the problem that there aren’t enough intensivists in this country, particular for smaller hospitals,” Aymond said. Some hospitalists who stepped into crisis roles in ICUs during COVID surges showed that they could take care of COVID patients very well.
Aymond, who is a fellowship-trained hospitalist with primary training in family medicine, has used his ICU experience in both fellowship and practice to make a thorough study of critical care medicine, which he put to good use when the seven-bed ICU at Byrd Memorial filled with COVID patients. “Early on, we were managing multiple ventilators throughout the hospital,” he said. “But we were having good outcomes. Our COVID patients were surviving.” That led to Aymond being interviewed by local news media, which led to other patients across the state asking to be transferred to “the COVID specialist who practices at Byrd.”
Aymond would like to see opportunities for abbreviated 1-year critical care fellowships for hospitalists who have amassed enough ICU experience in practice or in residency, and to make room for family medicine physicians in such programs. He is also working through SHM with the Society of Critical Care Medicine to generate educational ICU content. SHM now has a critical care lecture series at: www.hospitalmedicine.org/clinical-topics/critical-care/.
Mandal, who also works as a pediatric hospitalist, said that experience gave her more familiarity with using noninvasive methods for delivering respiratory therapies like high-flow oxygen. “When I saw a COVID patient who had hypoxia but was still able to talk, I didn’t hesitate to deliver oxygen through noninvasive means.” Eventually hospital practice generally for COVID caught up with this approach.
But she ran into personal difficulties because N95 face masks didn’t fit her face. Instead, she had to wear a portable respirator, which made it hard to hear what her patients were saying. “I formulated a lot of workarounds, such as interviewing the patient over the phone before going into the room for the physical exam.”
Throughout the pandemic, she never wavered in her commitment to rural hospital medicine and its opportunities for working in a small and wonderful community, where she could practice at the top of her license, with a degree of autonomy not granted in other settings. For doctors who want that kind of practice, she said, “the rewards will be paid back in spades. That’s been my experience.”
For more information on SHM’s Rural SIG and its supports for rural hospitalists, contact its executive chair, Kenneth Simone, DO, at email@example.com.
1. Personal communication from Peiyin Hung, June 2021.
2. Association of Health Care Journalists. Rural Health Journalism Workshop 2021. June 21, 2021. https://healthjournalism.org/calendar-details.php?id=2369.
3. Congress Establishes New Medicare Provider Category and Reimbursement for Rural Emergency Hospitals. National Law Review. Jan. 5, 2021. https://www.natlawreview.com/article/congress-establishes-new-medicare-provider-category-and-reimbursement-rural.
This article originally appeared on The Hospitalist, an official publication of the Society of Hospital Medicine.