For rural healthcare providers, serving the community means everything. But the way they serve their communities looks far different today than it did three years ago.
Population is booming in rural areas since the COVID-19 pandemic. From January–June 2021, rural areas experienced the highest inbound population migration gains (nearly 55%), according to data from the National Association of REALTORS® Research Group. During the same timeframe, the share of families moving into rural communities also increased by nearly 1%.
Businesses, too, are going rural, experiencing a 65% inbound migration to small towns and rural communities from January–June 2021 vs. just a 47% business migration to urban centers.
What’s fueling the move? The rise of remote and hybrid work models is one of the top drivers. Additional drivers include a pent up demand for rural living and improved access to broadband in rural communities, according to the rural living advocacy website Save Your Town.
As people move from cities to the outskirts, they bring with them the same expectations for healthcare that they had in their former locale. This puts renewed pressure on rural healthcare systems to move their digital transformation strategies forward. In fact, many rural health system leaders now have marching orders from their boards to boost digital health adoption.
But while consumers expect digital health today, many rural hospitals, health systems, clinics, and physician practices struggle to get off the starting blocks for many valid reasons. Let’s examine the top three digital health challenges for rural systems and explore how to solve them.
Challenge 1: Rural health systems don’t know where to start.
Larger healthcare organizations are already far along in their digital transformation journeys. Many have data they can rely on to show them their greatest needs when it comes to digital health so they can zero in on specific areas of improvement.
Smaller, rural healthcare organizations aren’t as fortunate. Some may be starting their digital transformation from scratch. They may have sparse data set s— if any at all — and struggle with knowing which digital health investments will benefit them the most.
One potential starting point: your telephony system. Many rural providers still use manual phone systems that don’t allow for data collection. With older systems, a rural care provider doesn’t know how many patients wait on hold, how many patients abandon their calls, or how well (or poorly) their operators perform.
The crucial decision point for rural networks often occurs when an existing telephony provider stops supporting soon-to-be outdated software and forces them to make a costly upgrade.
You don’t have to wait until that happens. By proactively switching your telephony system to a more modern virtual call center, you can gain visibility into important metrics like average time-to-answer, call abandonment rate, and overall customer service level. You can then use data as a way to decide whether other digital health tools, such as SMS/text messaging, chatbots or live agents, can help your organization better connect with its community members digitally.
Challenge 2: Rural health systems face increasing budget and staffing pressures.
The past few years haven’t been overly kind to rural health systems. A rash of hospital closures and consolidations have left many with shrinking budgets and limited resources. Adequate staffing is challenging, too, with a 61% shortage of primary care professionals in rural areas, according to data from the National Institute for Health Care Management (NIHCM).
Digital health tools offer a way to get community members access to the healthcare they need despite the staffing shortages. But how can rural systems do so with budgets already stretched thin? The answer comes in partnering up.
One of the unique aspects of rural healthcare providers is the strong affiliations they form with each other. The clinic in one part of town refers patients to the community hospital on the other side of town. The surgical center in one county works in lockstep with the health system two counties over. They combine their resources and buying power to improve care quality and move their missions forward.
Rural providers can also use their affiliations to increase their access to digital health tools. The solution that may be out of reach for a standalone surgery center may be more budget friendly if the costs — and benefits — are shared with several providers across a region. The key to making this happen is to choose a solution provider that can help you add new digital health capabilities as your need increases. Providers with a platform of services will bring you value by giving you access to multiple solutions without you having to contract with multiple vendors.
Challenge 3: Rural health systems worry about downstream discomfort.
Many rural health system leaders feel the push and pull of digital health. They know some current residents and many new residents within their communities want access to digital health tools. Yet they also know that some long-time members of their patient population will be resistant to change.
I’ll be 100% honest: There’s no easy way to roll out a digital health solution. There will be discomfort. There will be frustrations. Even implementing a new telephony system can create negative perceptions. The reality is that sometimes digital health tools make things a little bit worse in the short-term before they can make things a lot better over the long haul.
Yet those initial discomforts will eventually turn into strengths as rural health systems begin to use data to improve the way they connect with their patients. The community member who berated you at the car wash because she was on hold for 20 minutes with your practice when you first implemented a new telephony system could become the same one who sees her providers more regularly six months down the road because she enjoys getting appointment reminders via SMS message.
The more sophisticated your digital transformation becomes, the better you’ll overcome any early discomforts and create a better overall patient experience.
How rural health systems can overcome their top 3 digital health challenges.
Rural healthcare organizations need a digital health solutions provider who can grow with them as they navigate their digital transformation journey. DeliverHealth is a trusted partner with rural healthcare providers, delivering a wealth of solutions, services, and expertise.
Whether you’re looking to improve your telephony workflow, implement AI-powered omni-channel communications solutions like Virtual Assistants, LiveChat or LiveAgent, or looking to create a digital front door mobile experience for your patients, we can help you overcome the top digital health challenges and enhance the level of care you provide to your community.