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Program helps keep rural hospitals open
By John Hawkins
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Rural health care providers in Mississippi are getting assistance from a state program that emphasizes the economic importance of local health care.
In 2000, Mississippi's Office of Rural Health joined forces with the Mississippi State University Extension Service's Community Resource Development department to start Rural Health Works in Mississippi. This program began with two main goals in mind: to show the economic importance of the health care sector on the rural economy and to provide decision makers with a tool to use in planning and supporting their local health care system.
MSU's Extension Service is working with the Rural Health Works in Mississippi program to discover how much impact the health sector has on the state's communities. Joe Schmidt, retired Extension community development specialist, is assisting the work in conjunction with the Mississippi Hospital Association and the state Office of Rural Health.
"During the last three years, we have been using studies and impact models to assess the health sector's economic impact in counties," Schmidt said.
The gathered information helps engage the community in health care awareness and comprehensive community health care planning.
"In many cases, health care is one of the largest employers for local communities. That is what we are trying to bring out using these studies," Schmidt said.
Communities often overlook the influence of the health care sector on their economies.
Suzanne Berry, research associate for Extension's Community Resource Department, said hospitals, nursing homes, pharmacies, home health agencies and ambulance services are just a few of the providers that make up the health care sector.
"In a rural community, the health care sector generally represents a larger share of the local economy than it does in urban areas, because rural hospitals are typically one of the largest employers in the area," Berry said.
Many Mississippians depend on rural health care to provide the medical services they need. As economic resources required to operate these centers become increasingly scarce, many smaller hospitals have trouble making ends meet.
"The closure of a rural hospital can represent a serious threat not only to the health but also to the economic well being of the community. Loss of local jobs and income are an immediate result of closure of a rural hospital," Berry said.
Another effect of rural hospital closures is the loss of quality health care in the region. This can mean that employers who are seeking to locate in a region may decide against it, as local, quality health care is one of the major deciding factors for new business development.
The Rural Health Works in Mississippi program can be the launching point for planning assistance for rural hospitals and the communities they serve. The program that was adapted by Mississippi in 2000 began in Oklahoma in 1998 as part of a multi-state effort to revitalize and keep rural health centers open.
"Estimating the economic impact of the health care sector in a community is the first step. Next, the entire community, including consumers, local businesses and industry, and community development organizations are made aware of these estimates," Schmidt said.
"Comprehensive health care planning then begins with input from different perspectives. This process results in community residents learning about the challenges of providing health care services, and health care providers learn more about feasible health care services wanted by community residents," he said.
The Mississippi program coordinates rural hospitals with health care centers in urban areas, which in many cases, will benefit both.
Mendal Kemp, director of the Center of Rural Health within the Mississippi Hospital Association, said rural hospitals that meet certain requirements receive a critical access hospital designation.
"These requirements can include limiting the number of beds a hospital can have, how long patients can stay at the hospital and requiring the availability of 24-hour emergency services," Kemp said.
"After the criteria are met, the hospital can become a part of a rural health network," Kemp said. "These networks consist of smaller and larger hospitals with agreements in place for patient transfer, referral, emergency transportation and quality assurance."
Kemp said these agreements allow smaller hospitals to gain clinical and administrative support, and larger hospitals can gain an enhanced market presence and increased referrals through the critical access hospital.
"Another advantage for the rural hospital is the created potential for enhanced reimbursement from Medicare. In fact, the bottom line goals of the critical access hospital designation are improved financial viability and stability for local hospitals and enhanced access to quality health care for communities," Kemp said.
Contact: Dr. Joe Schmidt, (662) 312-7169