May 15 2023

4 Ways Technology Solutions Mitigate Staff Shortages in Rural Healthcare

Innovative technologies improve clinical efficiencies and help rural, independent and community hospitals better utilize fewer resources.

Labor shortages and rising costs impact all healthcare providers, but the strain is more acute for rural, independent and community hospitals. Forty-three percent of rural hospitals have negative operating margins, and staff shortages have forced hundreds of organizations to stop offering services such as obstetrics and chemotherapy, according to Chartis Group.

The physician shortage is expected to worsen over the next decade, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, as providers retire or switch careers. At the same time, the demand for specialty care is projected to increase as more Americans reach retirement age. 

Technology solutions can provide the necessary support that rural, independent and community hospitals need to care for their communities by helping them better utilize their staff and expand access to specialty resources. Here are four ways health IT solutions can mitigate the effects of staff shortages for these organizations:

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1. Minimizing Clinician Burnout at Independent Hospitals

Around 40 percent of clinicians say they don’t have enough resources to operate at full potential, and 59 percent say their teams are understaffed, a 2022 Bain & Company survey found.

“Why do we get burned out? You’re frustrated, you’re tired,” says Rikki Jennings, chief nursing informatics officer for Zebra Technologies, adding that tools that increase efficiency can help alleviate fatigue and promote job satisfaction. 

Five technology solutions can help improve efficiencies and support an overstretched staff: clinical communication and collaboration (CC&C) platforms, telehealth, automation, artificial intelligence and virtual sitting. Jennings and Dr. Stephanie Lahr, president of healthcare technology company Artisight, say the various technologies build on each other for maximum benefit.

2. Improving Operational Efficiencies Amid Staff Shortages

Virtual sitting, for example, helps cut costs by allowing hospitals to monitor patients across multiple rooms using less staff. The virtual sitter watches patients on screens, speaks into the rooms and calls for nurses when needed. 

To further enhance this system and reduce the cognitive load on the virtual sitter, Lahr explains, “an AI tool can look for patients who are making movements and draw the sitter’s attention to potential problems.” 

Lahr says the AI could be programmed to play an automated message into the patient’s room “even if the sitter hasn’t had a chance to say something yet. And we can do that in the patient’s preferred language.” The sitter could then use a CC&C platform to instantly connect with the patient’s care team.

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3. Connecting Rural Clinicians with a Larger Community of Specialists

Jennings notes that technology solutions enable providers to “share information with the right people who can intervene with the patient at the right time.” She gives an example of a stroke patient who seeks care at a rural outpatient clinic staffed by a general practitioner.

Rather than calling another hospital with a specialized stroke team and waiting for the operator to page the doctor, Jennings explains, “the clinician can use a CC&C platform to connect instantly with a stroke specialist at a larger facility.” 

Thanks to telehealth technology, that specialist can give a visual assessment and advise the onsite providers while the patient is being prepared for transport. Telehealth also gives the stroke patient the opportunity for remote follow-up appointments.

“Traditionally, patients would be limited by the resources available within that one hospital or clinic,” Jennings adds. “Rural healthcare providers are not on their own. We’ve really been able to bring down those walls blocking access because of virtual care.”

READ MORE: Learn three benefits of clinical workflow solutions for rural healthcare.

4. Limited Funding Doesn’t Have to Burden Independent Hospitals

“People will have to think creatively in these rural environments about how they might pool resources,” Lahr explains. She says there are viable options for smaller organizations with limited budgets.

She imagines, for example, five 25-bed hospitals partnering to leverage technological tools. Lahr describes this type of arrangement as advantageous because “some of these tools require some amount of scale to make their ROI.” 

Another option could come from the tech companies themselves. Lahr says she can envision telehealth and AI companies, for example, collaborating to offer interoperability between their services, giving rural hospitals the best of both solutions. 

“We have more people to care for who are sicker, and we have less workforce to care for them,” Jennings points out. “There is a great opportunity to look at how things like automation, AI, virtual sitting, telehealth and CC&C enable you to maximize the staff that you do have.”

Technology solutions “allow people who live in rural communities to get more-advanced care closer to home,” Lahr says. She adds that she’s excited to see how AI can be used in the future to further move healthcare forward. “Providing specialty-level knowledge and decision support through AI tools to primary care physicians who remain willing to take care of communities in these environments, I think, is going to be really cool to see.”

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