St. Gabriel’s meets challenges of providing rural health care
By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
The second annual Rural Health Day will be Thursday, Nov. 15, as declared by Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton. The annual event was established by the National Organizations of State Offices of Rural Health as the third Thursday in November.
“Providing health care in rural communities presents some challenges,” said St. Gabriel’s Hospital Director of Communications Patrick Rioux. “About 20 percent of the population in the United States lives in rural areas. This day is used to make the public more aware of difficult issues facing rural communities and rural health care systems.”
Two of the main challenges facing Morrison County are the aging population and lower-than-average per capita income.
“More than 16 percent of the population of Morrison County is age 65 or older, compared to about 12.5 percent statewide,” Rioux said. “With that older population comes a higher incidence of diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), due in part to the higher percentage of smokers here.”
Because of the lower per capita income in Morrison County — 13th lowest of 87 counties — “residents are often less vigilant about preventive care,” said Rioux.
Lower income also leads to access issues such as lack of transportation and/or insurance, or failure to enroll in medical assistance programs.
One way health care providers have attempted to bring care to patients is through home care. In a rural environment it is a bigger challenge to deliver health care this way due to the distance between the health care personnel and patients’ homes.
“In the Twin Cities, a home health care worker might visit a number of patients in one day, all within a 15-mile area,” Rioux said. “But in this area it might take 45 minutes just to get to the first patient’s home.”
One way for health care organizations to try to deliver home care more cost-effectively is to develop greater access to technology for the patient.
“Patients would potentially be able to step on a scale at home and the information would be relayed wirelessly to their doctor’s office,” Rioux said. “If a significant weight change is seen, for example in the case of COPD, that would alert providers to a possible problem.”
Emergency care in rural areas is extremely important. “Rural hospitals have to figure out ways to ensure access to emergency care with 24-hour, seven-days-a-week access to physicians,” said Rioux. “It used to be that our own doctors were on call, but that has changed.”
Since 2007, St. Gabriel’s has contracted with Emergency Practice Associates to provide a number of physicians regularly staffing the emergency room (ER) in Little Falls. The ER receives about 10,000 visits per year, a number which has increased over the past number of years.
“We’ve had 24/7 physician coverage since before 1998,” said Outpatient Nurse Manager Jane Smalley. “It’s a great benefit to have ER physicians available any time people come in — someone trained in advanced cardiac care and trauma, with plenty of experience in the emergency department. They are there right away and not at home sleeping.”
“We want to be recognized as a leader in rural health care for a community our size,” Rioux said.
St. Gabriel’s recently received a grant of $500,000 from the Minnesota Department of Health to help implement an electronic health record initiative, a mandate of the Affordable Care Act.
“We received this primarily because of the unique structure of our health care organization,” said Rioux.
The Family Medical Center and Little Falls Orthopedics both function as departments of St. Gabriel’s Hospital. The organization also includes Albany Area Hospital and Medical Center, clinics in Pierz and Randall, St. Camillus Place and the Alverna Apartments.
“We have a state-of-the-art facility to which the community contributed more than $1.5 million. A lot of those funds were invested in technology. All of our physicians are board-certified or are newer physicians in the process of being certified,” Rioux said. “Sometimes it’s easy to take the stuff in your own backyard for granted.”