Christian Fletcher knows all too well the challenges facing rural hospitals.
As CEO of LifeBrite Hospital Group, Fletcher led the acquisition of two at-risk hospitals in rural Georgia and North Carolina. Both were in bankruptcy and on the verge of closure and were in desperate need of infrastructure and operational improvements. These hospitals needed critical upgrades so they could provide better patient care and attract and retain better talent.
“From an operations perspective, these improvements can mean the difference between life and death,” said Fletcher. That’s why LifeBrite Hospital Group has invested more than $300,000 in the facilities since 2017.
EMRs and rural hospitals
Innovative technology like electronic medical record (EMR) systems can transform rural health care, according to the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology.
That’s why Medicare and Medicaid in 2011 launched a program providing financial incentives for health professionals and systems that adopt and demonstrate meaningful use EMR technology in patient care.
Among other things, EMRs enable remote rural hospitals to get real-time test results and input from other providers. It also allows them to coordinate with remote providers for specialized services not available locally. Finally, EMRs facilitate efficient transfers of patients, which is vital for critical access hospitals (CAH) like those operated by LifeBrite Hospital Group.
“As a critical access hospital, we are a stabilization facility,” Fletcher said. “Our job is to be a stabilizer, not a long-term acute care facility. Every time a patient is transferred to or from our facilities, it has to be documented and shared. EMRs allow us to do that more efficiently and accurately.”
Both LifeBrite Community Hospital of Early and LifeBrite Community Hospital of Stokes have swing-bed programs, or transitional care units, for patients recovering from surgery or from an injury. Often patients are transferred to these hospitals from larger nearby hospitals so they can complete rehabilitation closer to home. Each hospital has 25 acute care beds.
In the case of what is now LifeBrite Community Hospital of Stokes, the former EMR system was actually better suited for a larger acute care hospital, Fletcher said. LifeBrite replaced it with a specialized “built-from-scratch” system that better fit the health system’s needs.
Upgrading IT systems
Like most technology, EMR systems are only as effective as the information technology infrastructure.
Outdated IT infrastructure makes hospitals more vulnerable to hackers and data breaches and can hurt patient care and service. Outdated IT can even affect communication between departments since phone systems are usually part of the infrastructure.
“When we came into both hospitals we had to look at basic infrastructure development. These were things that had been kicked down the road,” Fletcher said. “Updating the IT infrastructure was one of the first things we did.”
Improving employee morale and retention
Investments in technological improvements improve employee satisfaction and help in efforts to attract and retain staff. Fletcher said.
“When we came into Stokes, the morale definitely improved. The hospital was in the middle of bankruptcy. We had to really stabilize the situation with employees and with the facility. We also brought in other services to help build up the business,” he said.
Uncertainty around a rural hospital affects the whole community. When a hospital closes, per capita income in its community declines by 4% and the unemployment rate rises 1.6 percentage points, according to a study published in Health Services Research.
Physicians watched to see if LifeBrite could stabilize the facilities. Now, both hospitals are adding much-needed specialists to their rosters.
“Updating and improving hospital technology is key in efficiency, patient outcomes and employee morale and retention. That’s why it’s a core focus for LifeBrite,” Fletcher said.
“We want to consistently grow and improve both the quality and offering of services at our hospitals,” said Fletcher. “We invest in technology so we can improve patient care as well as improve the billing, claims and follow-up. We have to do better for these communities.”
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