How rural healthcare systems can benefit from EHRs

Friday, January 13th, 2017

Rural and urban healthcare systems both aim to deliver high-quality care for patients. However, there are stark contrasts that may inhibit certain medical facilities from reaching that goal. Both do, after all, care for entirely different demographics and are unique in which tools they use to deliver medical attention to those populations.

This is particularly true when it comes to electronic health records, as many rural healthcare systems are still paper-based. And while every hospital faces its own obstacles, there are several challenges that are widespread throughout rural healthcare that can be helped with EHR implementation. Find out why rural hospitals should pair with a tech provider:

Physicians are overworked
Many non-urban facilities are understaffed. According to data from the National Rural Health Association, only about 10 percent of physicians work in rural locations, but 25 percent of the U.S. population resides in these areas. Compared to city hospitals, rural ones do not have the same medical personnel to patient ratio, which has implications for both caregivers and receivers.

On the physician side, trying to meet the demand of care with limited resources and colleagues can quickly lead to burnout. The weight of bureaucratic tasks like documentation and billing are one of the main causes of doctor stress. With fewer physicians to take on that burden, this challenge is perhaps even worse for rural healthcare professionals.

Too many hours at work was the second leading cause of burnout. Those who are employed in rural healthcare systems must still meet the demand for care even with fewer physicians, which may increase their time spent seeing patients and filing paperwork.

Physician stress can negatively impact the quality of care they provide. In fact, medical experts often regard burnout as a patient safety issue, as clinicians feel more detached from those they care for. Their intense stress and exhaustion inhibits them from applying the necessary focus and personalization to adequately attend to patients. Plus, the stress-related health issues they experience, like general fatigue or even muscle pain can distract them from delivering the highest level of care.

Medical charts on a book shelf.Opting for paper-based solutions over electronic health records can lead to inefficiency and inaccuracy.

How EHRs can help: Paper-based systems are inherently less streamlined, accurate and effective than automated technological solutions. While the bureaucratic duties won't go away, their impact can be lessened with the help of EHRs. According to data from the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, 79 percent of doctors reported their practices ran more efficiently with the help of EHRs. Additionally, 68 percent said EHR implementation helped with recruiting physicians, which certainly benefits areas with clinician shortages.

Rural patients have different lifestyle habits
According to the NRHA, alcohol abuse is a larger-scale problem in rural spaces than urban ones. Specifically, 40 percent of high school seniors from these areas reported drinking and driving. Only 25 percent of urban residents of the same age group consumed alcohol while operating motor vehicles.

This behavior has serious health consequences in addition to potential drunk driving accidents. Alcohol abuse can increase a person's risk for cardiovascular issues like stroke and high blood pressure, liver disease, a weakened immune system and certain cancers among other conditions. This, of course, adds extra challenges to treatment plans.

Alcohol abuse can also drive up healthcare costs and make meeting Affordable Care Act goals more challenging. According to a report from The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, conditions like excessive alcohol consumption, as a secondary diagnosis often requires patients to stay in the hospital longer than the primary condition would normally call for.

How EHRs can help: Systems that bring up a patient's entire health history with the click of a button are perhaps even more crucial in rural locations because of behavioral differences like increased substance abuse. If a patient has been diagnosed with alcohol abuse previously, a new doctor can be made immediately aware of that. This way, they can get a more detailed picture of the person's well-being and make appropriate decisions. Doing so not only makes care more efficient - as clinicians won't try to solve a puzzle with missing pieces - it can also lead to better health outcomes overall.

EHR reporting computer and clipboard.The connectivity gained through electronic health records can lead to better patient engagement.

Logistics challenges
In a city or its surrounding suburbs, residents likely need only drive a few miles at most to reach a medical facility. This convenience is absent in rural locations. According to NRHA, patients living in rural areas already have to travel greater distances to find a medical center. Adding to that issue, though, is the increased number of closed hospitals, especially in rural communities.

If a town only has one medical facility, the resulting medical desert - or vast distance without a hospital - can be detrimental for those who need immediate care. Not only can this prove problematic in emergencies, but the lengthy travel times may make people less inclined to schedule regular appointments with their doctors. This has serious implications for their well-being, as ignoring certain symptoms can make treatment more difficult.

How EHRs can help: Many EHRs come equipped with patient portals that allow individuals to securely communicate with their physicians. For instance, a quick email could determine whether the patient's symptoms warrant an in-person consultation, or it could serve as a request for a prescription refill. Patient portals also allow individuals to review test results, which inherently makes them more involved with their care. It may even encourage patients to adapt their behaviors to lead healthier lifestyles. Meanwhile, according to the ONC, EHR use can improve public health outcomes, which may mean frequent visits to the doctor aren't even necessary.

EHRs have many advantages that rural healthcare systems often don't take advantage of. Pairing with a technical partner can ensure these hospitals have all the necessary tools to enhance care quality and improve patient outcomes.

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