Rural Hospitals in Crisis: Opportunities for Transformation and Improved Viability Through Partner Referral Networks

According to a recent Becker’s Report, hundreds of rural hospitals across the nation are at risk of closure as a result of years of negative operating margins compounded by factors like average length of stay and changes in net patient revenue. The threat of losing local hospitals is alarming for both providers and patient populations in these areas as it directly impacts access to care and the economics of the areas served. To address this crisis, larger regional health systems have an opportunity to establish effective referral networks among rural facilities. This would allow specialty care services to be delivered remotely, keeping more patients in their communities. Not only does this represent an opportunity for larger health systems to generate new revenue, it also increases access to care for rural patients and improves operating margins for rural and community hospitals. Further Improving retention rates to capture downstream revenues that are typically lost when a patient is sent out to a more comprehensive facility.

In North Carolina alone, 30-40% of rural hospitals are at risk of closure. Initiatives like the North Carolina Statewide Telepsychiatry Program (NC-STeP), launched by our partners at East Carolina University Brody School of Medicine, are broadening access to specialty services for patients while generating new revenue streams for rural and community partners statewide. Leveraging a robust referral partner network, the program has supported more than 80,000 telepsychiatry assessments to date, and services dozens of hospital emergency departments across the state of North Carolina. When implemented effectively, models like these could prove to dramatically shift viability for rural hospitals.

The vision of NC-STeP is to assure that if an individual experiencing an acute behavioral health crisis enters an emergency department of a hospital anywhere in the state of North Carolina, s/he receives timely specialized psychiatric treatment through this program.  

The program aims to effectively:

  • Reduce patient lengths of stay in hospital emergency departments (reduce psych holds to less than 48 hrs.)
  • Reduce number of Involuntary Commitments (IVC) by eliminating unnecessary admissions
  • Improve patient transition to aftercare and reduce ED recidivism
  • Increase efficiency and reduce costs

ECU & ViTel Net Partnership

In their plans to scale the program, the team at ECU sought out technology partners who would be able to centralize and streamline their and their partners’ existing workflows while improving program oversight and optimizing patient data transfer for referrals.. Leveraging ViTel Net’s integrated, interoperable, and scalable, vCareCommand platform the team saw an opportunity to simultaneously power sustained growth while optimizing the capabilities of existing Health IT for the program.