Size does not matter when it comes to the use of healthcare IT as an enabler of clinical care or financial management. A 25-bed hospital can reap the same benefits as a 700-bed facility. The use of health IT provides better care coordination and instant access to patient information, which can improve healthcare quality and patient outcomes in rural communities as well as the largest urban areas. Health IT is especially beneficial to rural America where distances between healthcare providers and hospitals are great and access to specialists is limited.
Almost one fifth of the U.S. population lives in a rural area. Critical Access Hospitals (CAHs) and other small, rural hospitals provide vital services to these areas and often serve as the foundations for rural healthcare delivery systems. Rural areas residents face barriers to accessing healthcare services that include traveling long distances to seek care. Since rural hospitals are often the sole local source for patient care in rural communities, it is imperative they provide the best care possible.
The 1997 Medicare Rural Hospital Flexibility Program (Flex Program) allows small hospitals to be licensed as CAHs and offers grants to States to help implement initiatives to strengthen the rural health care infrastructure. CAHs must be located in a rural area and be more than 35 miles from another hospital (15 miles by secondary roads or in mountain terrain) or have been certified before January 1, 2006 by the State as being a necessary provider of health care services. Additionally, to be considered a CAH, the hospital must have an emergency room that operates 24 hours a day and 7 days a week using either on-site or on-call staff. A CAH is normally limited to 25 inpatient beds used for either inpatient or swing bed services. CAHs are also subject to a 96-hour (4-day) limit on the average length of stay.
Health IT and Electronic Health Record (EHR) Adoption by CAHs and other small, rural hospitals offer excellent benefits for the delivery of healthcare. The use of health IT holds much potential for rural America. The benefits of EHRs are well documented, and rural providers are uniquely positioned to benefit from the use of this technology. Health IT has the potential to transform how rural health care providers collect, manage, store, use and share health information. Health IT also helps rural communities access and coordinate care, improve disease surveillance, target health education, and compile regional data – all activities aimed at improving health care quality and patient outcomes.
An EHR also creates an improved mechanism to complete specialty referrals which is valuable when access to specialists is often limited in rural communities. Additionally, EHR software provides easy access to up-to-date lab result information, new medication information, and medication interaction and allergy safeguards that would not be readily available otherwise. Because many rural areas typically have a lower per capita income, additional EHR efficiencies may help to control health care costs to help offset lower than average levels of reimbursement. Many of these EHR mechanisms and enhancements can be used to improve rural healthcare gaps and deficiencies. Bed size doesn’t matter when it comes to the benefits provided by healthcare information technology.