About two dozen community hospitals in Kansas and Nebraska have signed up to use Cerner Corp.’s electronic health technology.
The hospitals are members of the Great Plains Health Alliance, which provides management services to critical access hospitals in both states.
Critical access hospitals focus on outpatient care and are limited to no more than 25 inpatient beds. Under federal Medicare guidelines, they are required to be at least 35 miles distant from any other hospital.
“For the small community hospitals in Kansas and Nebraska that are medically underserved and financially unstable at times, I think it really gives them a good stepping stone to be financially viable for the long-term future,” says Aaron Miller, a spokesman for Great Plains, referring to the agreement with Cerner.
Many of these hospitals, faced with Medicare reimbursement cuts, reduced payments for the uninsured and both states' refusal to expand Medicaid, are struggling. The National Rural Health Association, which is based in Leawood, Kansas, says 57 rural hospitals have closed in the last five years.
“We’ve identified about 283 facilities nationwide that are rural hospitals, out of about 2,000, that are at what we call high risk for closure,” says Brock Slabach, senior vice president of the association.
While not a panacea, Slabach says the ability of such hospitals to adopt sophisticated electronic medical record systems is “terribly important to any strategic plan to be able to navigate the changes that have come and will be coming down the road in terms of where our health system is going.”
“Data, and the ability to manage data, through health information technology is incredibly important to that process in the long term,” he says.
Cerner began focusing on rural hospitals about six years ago with the establishment of a self-contained organization within the Kansas City-based health technology giant called Cerner CommunityWorks.
Mitchell Clark, president of Cerner CommunityWorks, says about 125 rural facilities in 34 states are now using Cerner technology. Many of them, he says, had been using paper records.
Now they have “the same cutting-edge technology that would be available to a very large provider such as Via Christi (in Wichita) or Saint Luke’s in Kansas City,” he says.
The agreement with Great Plains gives Cerner a foothold in more than half the critical access hospital locations in Kansas, Clark says.
“Rural health is a very, very critical part of the health care spectrum across the country and we’re excited about being able to be a part of that and grow that, especially here in our backyard,” he says.
Clark did not say how much the contract with Great Plains is worth, but health information technology is expensive and takes time to adopt and learn. Slabach says the economies of scale achieved through group purchasing will also make it easier for the hospitals to implement the technology.
“If you can have learning collaborations that are basically set up locally that can be used to leverage best practices among facilities, then you can spread that information more quickly and hopefully get better utilization of these technologies,” Slabach says.
“In the short term, obviously facilities have to be able to afford these systems, and they're expensive and they're very time-intensive in terms of set-up and training and being able to use it,” he says. “So therein is the complication. Rural hospitals have to do it, but making it happen is a challenge, no doubt.”
Dan Margolies, editor of the Heartland Health Monitor team, is based at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.