Why rural hospitals should consider growing their surgery program

Healthcare providers and C-suite leaders at critical access hospitals (CAHs) and rural hospitals know the powerful impact that one surgeon or one procedure can have within a small community. However, this passion to provide exceptional care means continuously reevaluating how healthcare leaders can not only best serve their town’s demographics, but also how to keep their doors open.  

Confronting this unfortunate reality has become even more palpable for many rural hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic, as many experienced a dramatic shift in resources and a significant decrease in operating revenue. Graham Russell, chief operating officer for MESA Healthcare Inc., says the pandemic has underscored just how vital it is for rural providers to constantly evolve and create long-term action plans; specifically, he believes that growing new service lines through viable surgery programs is vital.

“I can’t overstate the importance of having a three-to-five year action plan in place to address revenue,” Russell says. “It’s also critical to consider that more than half of surgeons working in these small hospitals are less than five years away from retirement. This means hospital leadership also need some sort of succession plan or they risk running out of time and losing a vital revenue stream.”

Although Russell admits that building or reoptimizing rural hospital-based surgery and invasive procedure programs can seem complex and overwhelming, there are a variety of resources and tactics for leaders to tap into. Of particular interest, he says, are online data sources that can help identify the surgeries performed elsewhere in the rural hospital’s primary and secondary service areas. Analyzing existing resources and local talent within your hospital is key, too. 

“Consider what capital equipment you already have on hand,” Russell says. “Think about the size of your facility, the floor plan, if you have any operating rooms and even the human resources or team members currently on staff. Use that data and make evidence-based decisions that will work in your favor.” 

For hospitals currently without a surgery program, he recommends investigating potential surgical and invasive procedures that are low-cost, low-risk and fairly simple to stand up. General surgery and pain management is a great starting point, Russell notes. But he says that a hospital board or C-suite should also look at the outmigration of a particular type of patient within their small market as well. 

Of course, recruiting and retaining new surgeons, proceduralists or essential trained staff is another fundamental consideration. The good news, Russell says, is that there are growing numbers of highly trained surgeons and proceduralists who want to work in America’s rural hospitals. 

“Even if you don’t think a new service line is valuable at first, you should take a look at what people in your area need and want from a hospital,” Russell says. “Do your due diligence, use your town and your hospital board, ask your physicians, do your research and get those questions answered.”

To learn more about surgery program development and optimization in rural hospitals, tune in to the webinar Small Town, Big Surgery, No Problem on June 4 at noon. Led by Russell, the webinar will not only provide listeners with online resources for quantifying current surgical procedure outmigration to rural hospitals, but also discuss new methods to recruit and retain surgeons, operating room nurses and anesthesia providers. Reserve your spot today.