Rural healthcare providers face a host of unique challenges that force physicians, nurses, and hospital administrators to think creatively in order to deliver the highest quality care possible to patients. Those challenges include a lower physician-to-patient ratio than in urban areas, a higher risk for injury-related deaths such as car accidents, and more difficult access to care because many residents have to travel extensive distances to reach a clinic or hospital.
Less populated areas also tend to have higher unemployment and uninsured rates, making it more difficult and expensive for residents in these areas to access the care they need to remain healthy, according to the National Rural Health Association (NRHA).
Care providers, such as Benefis Health System in Great Falls, Montana, handle these challenges on a day-to-day basis. However, Benefis Health System makes it its mission to not let the obstacles presented by its relatively rural location get in the way of its dedication to the betterment and long-lasting health of the patients it serves. In Cascade County, where Benefis Health System is located, many of the problems faced by rural health systems are relevant. The county has an above average poverty rate, for example. More than 15 percent of Cascade County’s residents live under the federal poverty level, according to data compiled by Data USA. In contrast, the national poverty rate is roughly 12.7 percent, according to 2016 data from the United States Census Bureau.
The area also has a low physician-to-patient ratio, with only one primary care physician for every seventy-seven patients, Data USA reported. This disparity is even wider for certain areas of specialty care in the area, such as mental health services, where the physician-to-patient ratio is one physician for every 249 patients.
But instead of viewing these problems as unsolvable, Benefis Health System has concocted a wide variety of solutions focused on population health so that patients can do as much as possible to safeguard their own health if they aren’t able to make it to the hospital for regular visits with a doctor. “As a rural healthcare provider, Benefis faces technology challenges that community hospitals in more populated areas do not,” explains Bob Green, vice president of technology services at cloud-based solutions provider CloudWave. “CloudWave has been helping maintain Benefis’ on-premises data center while also working with Benefis CIO Mark Simon to meet these challenges and deliver high-quality care.”
For example, Benefis Health System has implemented a variety of technology-based solutions to make care more accessible for patients living in rural areas. Spearheaded by CIO Mark Simon, the organization has created the Realizing Education and Community Health (REACH) Network, which provides access to telehealth services related to oncology, mental health, cardiology, and many other areas of care. The initiative is seen as a pioneering technological success by many of Simon’s partners.
“Mark promotes technological utilization to streamline resources for efficient care, and Verizon is a proud partner in support of his objectives,” says Michael Sullivan, major account manager for Verizon Wireless.
The REACH Network spans a network of fourteen hospitals and clinics throughout northern and central Montana. Operating this vast network of hospitals requires Simon and the Benefis IT team to maintain a modern technology infrastructure, with the help of some key partners.
“Telehealth services provide a great service to patients in rural areas who might struggle to access care otherwise,” says Judy Hanover, product marketing manager at data storage solutions company Pure Storage. “Pure Storage is proud to partner with Benefis to help provide top-quality care to patients around Montana.”
The organization also offers a variety of classes on areas of care that address specific issues within the community. For example, the county has a relatively high percentage of residents who live with diabetes. In fact, about 9.1 percent of residents are diagnosed with the disease, according to Data USA.
In order to help combat this, Benefis offers a class on diabetes management, where individuals can learn about various aspects of living with the illness, from tips on healthier eating and blood glucose monitoring to information on medications and support groups.
Benefis is also taking steps to address the most severe problem it sees in its emergency room: fall-related injuries. In addition to accounting for many of the most critically injured people to visit Benefis’ emergency department, the organization notes that falls are the leading cause of death for individuals sixty-five or older in Montana. The institution offers a Fall Prevention class, which focuses on tips to prevent falls in the home. The class also provides free screenings for individuals to see if they have any fractures or other injuries that they might not know about.
In addition to these seminars, Benefis offers a host of other classes related to first-time motherhood, mindfulness, and cancer support groups, among other topics to help people find ways to remain healthy without having to make multiple trips to the hospital.
The health system also makes additional efforts in the community to assist underserved populations.
For instance, the organization has partnered with Meals on Wheels in the past through its Blue Jeans Fridays program. This initiative allows Benefis employees to pay $20, and in exchange, they don’t need to wear their uniform to work on Friday. Previous efforts from this program have resulted in donations of more than $2,500 to Meals on Wheels, which helps provide meals to homebound seniors in the Cascade County area.
Through these classes and initiatives such as Blue Jeans Fridays, Benefis Health System will continue to demonstrate how rural health systems make just as significant an impact as its urban counterparts.
Benefis Health System: By the Numbers
Residents served across a fifteen-county region that is larger than Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont combined
Area physicians partnering with Benefis Health System
Years Benefis Health System has served the Great Falls area of Montana