Coming into 2020, Northern Rockies Medical Center (NRMC) in Cut Bank, Mont., was regaining its financial footing after enduring a couple of tough years, including suffering an $800,000 shortfall in 2018. Even so, by last March when the center saw its first COVID-19 patients, the 20-bed critical access hospital was operating with only three to four days of cash reserves on hand, CEO Cherie Taylor told the Montana Free Press.
And new worries were surfacing. In February 2020, Glacier County commissioners said they could no longer afford to operate the region’s emergency medical service (EMS) and by June asked NRMC to take over EMS operations. The hospital stepped up and assumed operations by October. It salvaged a county-run ambulance service and began building critical transport services for COVID-19 patients who needed advanced care at larger hospitals — all made possible after receiving relief in the form of Medicaid payments, assistance from state bed tax revenue and CARES Act funding.
Transforming Care in a Crisis
This is just one example of how rural health care leaders around the country are overcoming the challenges precipitated by the pandemic. Demonstrating inspired leadership, innovative collaborative efforts and forward-thinking governance, rural hospitals and health systems continue to deliver care in the face of overwhelming adversity. Organizations across the nation will gather virtually Feb. 17-18 for the AHA Rural Health Care Leadership Conference to make, build and renew connections that will help the field continue to innovate and transform care.
The conference will feature more than 60 speakers and address strategic imperatives, including:
- Leading during the pandemic.
- Building connections and trust during vaccine distribution.
- Creating community infrastructure to advance rural health equity.
- Improving access to behavioral health services.
- Preparing your organization’s culture for an unforeseeable future.
- Leveraging the potential of governing boards in the face of continual disruption.
One of the sessions features AHA government relations and policy leaders who will review the latest from Capitol Hill and the new administration.
And, a panel discussion on how rural hospitals are teaming up for shared expertise, resources and scale will explore how organizations are successfully affiliating with both health systems and other rural hospitals in an effort to keep their missions strong.
Extending Dialogue Beyond the Conference
Conference registrants recently got a head start on sharing best practices and collaborating with peers in affinity groups. These groups are organized by six critical topics like pathways to recovery, innovation and digital transformation, and resilience throughout an ongoing health crisis. They will also meet during and after the conference to share successes and solve problems.
In a pre-conference affinity group meeting, participants discussed how they are responding to the pandemic through collaboration and unique community partnerships. In the resilience group, participants explained how they’re “bouncing forward” from the pandemic by exploring ways to support their teams during the ongoing crush of COVID-19 cases, and undertaking activities to help staff grow from this experience.
To build community support and trust for receiving vaccinations, San Carlos Apache Hospital in Peridot, Ariz., launched Warrior Wednesdays. All employees — from front-line caregivers and environmental services technicians to the CEO — wear T-shirts identifying them as health care warriors. The hospital also worked with the San Carlos Apache tribe to address vaccine concerns in the community. Isaiah Belknap, CEO mentee at the hospital and a member of the San Carlos Apache tribe, CEO Victoria Began, R.N., and others received their vaccinations live on Facebook and urged the community to follow their lead.
In the Pathways to Recovery: Transformational Leadership group, participants explained how they reshaped management and care delivery during the pandemic. One innovation involved an upside-down organizational chart with executive leaders on the bottom and front-line staff on the top. The group also discussed innovations developed during the pandemic, how to build on them and carry them forward.