2010 NRHA Conference Notes

Posted on May 29, 2010

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Last week I attended the National Rural Health Association’s Annual Rural Health Conference in Savannah, and really enjoyed myself.  Of course the venue, Savannah’s Trade and Convention Center, is so ideally situated in an historic and urban environment, it was hard not to.  I was a first-time attendee and learned a great deal.

Dr. Joycelyn Elders, a rural Arkansas product herself, was the keynote speaker and provided relevant grounding on the state of rural health care in America. 25% of our country’s population lives in rural areas, but only 10% of healthcare providers are located in rural areas. Thus the main concern is access to quality care, while on the other end of the spectrum, saturation of beds and facility consolidation is a concern in competitive, urban environments.

Sprinkled between the exhibit hall and networking break schedule were ample educational sessions that examined real issues facing rural care with meaningful depth. Compared to other conferences, they were workshop-like and not implicitly catered to the annual scramble to acquire continuing education units (CEUs).  That CEU mission has kept so many other seminars I attended at a disappointingly introductory level; in order for mass appeal the content is always lacking, and I never really get the insight I expected. 

Not here.  My first session was presided over by research PhDs with research and publications under their belt, and they were not pitching their companies or methods. Attendees sat at round tables, earnestly mixing and learning from each other while questions were posed to the presenters, and best practices were shared and discussed. In a nod to both tradition and the genuineness of the attendees, business cards were freely exchanged.

I was not able to stay for the duration of the conference; however, after several lively discussions with conference compatriots, I realized a few neat aspects about rural healthcare. 

  • Some aspects of running a hospital, like IT and facility funding, are universal struggles; however, rural providers can be more advanced than non-rural providers because they have to be more resourceful. One rural system spoke on a distance monitoring and telemedicine program implementation that was a necessity because their area served and the distance and cost to travel and transport people between facilities was high. Delivering care was not merely convenient for patients, it was essential to keep the system solvent.
  • Driven people find a way. To most people, a mission is a statement on paper.  The folks I met were passionate advocates on a mission; they are driven to provide for their area.  Why?  Because for them, to serve is paramount, to believe in change, and to make a difference in people’s lives.  I learned some rural facilities employ grant writers, and were well-versed in maneuvering the requirements for federal funds—more so than some large systems I know.
  • No national panacea exists for healthcare; it is just too complex. Many healthcare concerns are shared between providers, but some significant issues are distinctly regional, which is simply a function of the rich diversity of our country.  For example, discussing patient lifestyle with a gentleman from West Virginia uncovered his facility’s heavy load of silicosis patients due to generations of coal miners. Others discussed particular challenges with Native American populations. I also learned about locum tenens physicians and the alternative work arrangements required to provide service to some rural populations.

In many ways, the NRHA participants appear to have a balanced perspective of their duties and challenges, with feet in both camps:  the rural network minority, a familial group and collegial resource; and the non-rural majority, a network of potentially more embattled and resourcefully-blessed providers. Yet neither group, rural or non, has solved the economy and everyone is anxious about the future of heathcare and the top-down changes ahead.

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Posted in: Rural Healthcare