FAH Hospital Policy Blog

Perspectives on health policy affecting America's hospitals and the patients we serve.

New Podcast: Fighting COVID-19 in Rural America – A Hospital Leader Reports from the Frontlines

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the United States, every community was touched, but many rural areas were hit the hardest. Thankfully, the frontline caregivers at hospitals in these small communities did what they always do – they rose to the occasion, found solutions to problems and saved lives. But what really happened in the hallways of these rural hospitals when COVID-19 peaked – in this episode of Hospitals in Focus, we hear from a leader who was there.

Chip recently spoke with Doug Weaver, the CEO of Hillcrest Hospital Pryor in Oklahoma – which is owned by FAH member Ardent Health Services – to dig deeper into the impact that COVID-19 had on a rural hospital. Doug has been the CEO at several hospitals and has a career in health care spanning over four decades. His insight into the challenges that rural hospitals faced, not only during COVID-19 – but beyond, was second-to-none, as he went into extensive details on the challenges that Hillcrest Pryor faced.

Doug opened up the podcast explaining how the second wave of COVID-19 impacted their area the most “It really affected our community…about 27 or 28% of the people in our community actually had the COVID virus. The hospital was filled almost immediately. There wasn’t any place to stay.”

Hillcrest Pryor, like many rural hospitals, doesn’t have an ICU, but the staff was able to work quickly to adapt, “We have 21 private rooms plus our emergency department. Out of those 21 rooms we had to have our engineering department retrofit 16 of those rooms into negative pressure rooms for those (COVID) patients and that was done in the haste of the moment. They did a super job”

The Emergency Department became the makeshift COVID ward where they treated patients who needed to be put on a ventilator.

They used telehealth technology to get patients the specialized care they needed. Caregivers in Pryor were able to connect one-on-one with specialists at a larger facility in Tulsa to make sure proper treatment was being administered. “This was a lifesaving tool where we had real time physicians working with us.”

It was further proof to Doug that telehealth will be major contributor to care at rural hospitals in the future. “We can’t be all things to all patients. Telemedicine is that conduit to where we can tie in…Telemedicine will help keep patients at home. A lot of people can’t travel for care. Rural health care will depend on telemedicine to keep a physical presence in these communities, whether it is cardiology, pulmonology, or others”

Doug then turned his attention to his staff as well as staffing shortages. He acknowledged that the staff, while thankful for all the praise from outside the hospital, was experiencing hero fatigue. Doug said caregivers had approached him saying that they’re tired that they didn’t sign up for this. He added that the growing stress would lead to more staffing shortages, a problem that could go on past the pandemic, saying that we need more leadership across the country to end the nursing crisis.

“The #1 crisis in health care is the labor shortage. I think we need to sound the alarm to policymakers, business leaders, whoever – that this is going to affect all of health care. We have to figure out a way to keep health care workers in health care.”

Lastly, Chip and Doug discussed how systemization eased the burden felt by rural hospitals. Doug praised Ardent Health Services saying, “I think having a system approach, we were able to just take care of patients…From the medical professionals to the corporate office, we had regular calls to talk about everything from new treatment methods to needed supplies. It’s great to have that support. That’s the only way a lot of (rural) hospitals survived – the system approach.”

Be sure to celebrate Rural Hospital Week with us by catching the full episode here.